With Weeks 17 and 18 spanning Wednesday through Sunday, young players scored key goals, laid on pretty assists and even posted a clean sheet or two around MLS. The races for places in the YPPOTW rundown remain highly competitive, and this batch was perhaps the toughest one yet. 

Remember, you can chirp at me about your picks by finding the most recent post like this on the Twitter machine:

We’ll start in the A.

The Five Stripes have suddenly jolted from a double-digit winless skid to a four-points-from-six road swing through Montréal and Columbus, thanks in no small part to Barco. After earning minutes during all three of Argentina’s Olympic matches, the Boat returned with a bang, notching an assist in ATL's 2-2 comeback draw in Canada before bossing their 3-2 win in Columbus with a well-taken brace.

Connecting well with wingback George Bello (more on him soon), Barco served up four key passes in both matches and passed precisely, and at volume, throughout. As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle phrased it, there is, “for what seems like the first time all year, some verticality to Atlanta's play” thanks mainly to him. Now 22, is Barco showing that he’s ready to carry his team? And maybe carry out that long-awaited big-ticket transfer at season’s end, too?

In sheer experiential terms, his Gold Cup adventure with the US men’s national team was already a net win for Bello even before he handled his business as the starting left back in the final against Mexico. I’d say he still had that adrenaline pulsating through his system as he rejoined his club, based on the confidence and consistency he showed in Atlanta’s big week.

Though he did plenty of duel-winning and other dirty work, that delicious backheel to set up Barco’s goal against the Crew was the head-turning highlight. It feels like we’ve been waiting years for ATL’s talent-rich left flank to really get firing, and now we see the extent of the promise. Kudos are due to interim boss Rob Valentino for fostering what Barco called the “pure happiness in the locker room” in the wake of Gabriel Heinze’s contentious exit.

Schön, like Barco, does the YPPOTW-MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi double here. It’s also the second straight week in which the Hungarian international made it onto these pages, and with dimes of this quality, he’ll stick around a while:

If you’re thinking those two assists looked like nice, easy passes for Schön to connect, I urge you to flip your perspective and respect the vision, timing and technique that made them look so straightforward. FCD’s 2-0 win crushed Austin FC’s hopes of a second win over in-state opposition in four days and confirmed their status as one of the league’s hottest teams, a turnaround powered by young legs like Schön’s.

As previously stated, we juggle minutes and moments, data and dopamine, stats and vibe checks alike around here, because there are so many ways to measure the value and growth of young players. Paredes’ six-point week for the red-hot and rambunctious Black-and-Red is a case in point.

He didn’t score or assist against Columbus or Montréal. But the 18-year-old winger was a game-breaking factor in both games, a constant menace on the dribble, in transition and in final-third combination moments, tabulating 0.41 goals added, joint-best among MLS youngsters last week. Paredes won a penalty kick and drew three yellow-card fouls, the final of which prompted coach Hernan Losada to issue a pointed public admonishment to the referees for not protecting his starlet – who he considers a de facto Designated Player – more carefully.

“I really believe that the foul on Kevin Paredes is a straight red card. It's a brutal foul that was only punished with a yellow card,” said Losada of the open-field trip by Kamal Miller. “So I hope the league starts to protect those kinds of players like Kevin, like they used to protect all the DPs.

“Well, Kevin Paredes is one of our DPs, maybe not on paper, but he shows that every single week and every time he’s playing. That was a brutal foul that needs to be punished. So I hope they start to protect our offensive players a lot better.”

Given only sparse – albeit cap-tying – playing time for Mexico in the Gold Cup, the Galaxy homegrown looked hungry on his return to club action. Efra ghosted through Real Salt Lake’s backline to coolly net the game-winner on Wednesday, a lovely bit of combination with Sacha Kljestan, then played provider extraordinaire against Vancouver.

Alvarez showed elite movement and vision to shift the Whitecaps individually, then slice them in half collectively with a deliciously incisive through ball to Kevin Cabral’s feet. With four key passes on the night, he could easily have notched a hat trick of assists and was clinical with his more pedestrian completions as well.

Honorable mentions

Paxten Aaronson: Yeah, even an absolute banger and arguable Man-of-the-Match outing in his first MLS start wasn’t quite enough to nudge “Pax10” into the top five. But Brenden’s younger sibling showed the soccer IQ, lightning-quick feet and razor-sharp finishing instincts that have some of us expecting even more from him than his big bro.

Gabriel Slonina: More than two years after signing his homegrown contract at the tender age of 14, the Chicago Fire goalkeeping prospect made four saves to post a clean sheet in his first-team debut against NYCFC at midweek, in the process becoming the youngest starting GK in league history. “Gaga,” as they call him around the club, also shared an inspirational message to those seeking to follow in his footsteps.

Taty Castellanos: NYCFC are undefeated in five, and their No. 9 continues to contribute. The Argentine assisted on both Cityzens goals against Toronto FC to run his season total to 6g/6a, and Castellanos’ 0.41 goals added was level with Paredes for best among young’uns these past two matchweeks.

Jesus Ferreira: Ferreira scored the all-important second goal in the win over Austin, his second of the season, and put in good defensive work both there and in the road draw at Seattle. He probably needs to sharpen his passing accuracy in places but seems to be grasping the less-glamorous contributions needed of an everyday starter.

Maciel: It takes a wide range of contributors to power a behemoth like the league-leading New England Revolution have become, so don’t sleep just because Maciel’s skill set is understated. The Brazilian is a great glue guy for the more prominent performers around him. Against Philadelphia, he completed more than 90% of his 71 passes – seven of them accurate long balls, one a key pass – and patrolled the engine room intelligently.