The past week was about the busiest imaginable across MLS, with double-game weeks for just about everyone ahead of the October international window. That provided a stage for an array of young players to shine, some of them quite familiar to regular YPPOTW readers, others less so.
Let’s start with one from the latter category.
Bad season, good week. That’s TFC in a nutshell at present, as the Reds racked up six goals and six points in two games to haul themselves off the foot of the Eastern Conference table – and their 21-year-old winger was pivotal in that progress. Shaffelburg racked up a goal and three assists in wins over Cincinnati and Chicago (and saw another strike waved off), with a total of six key passes underlining the volume and impact of his service from the flank.
HIGHLIGHTS: Toronto FC vs. FC Cincinnati | September 29, 2021
It capped an excellent month overall for the hard-running youngster, who earned a call-up to the Canadian national team for their tough trio of Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifiers. And given what a rich vein of form he’s found, don’t be surprised if John Herdman gives him a chance to contribute right away.
The versatile German-American scored his first career MLS goal over the weekend, capping Philly’s 3-0 thumping of Columbus, and while goalkeeper Evan Bush could’ve done better with it, it was just reward for Flach’s overall performance. Let’s not lose sight of how rare it is – even as #PlayYourKids takes hold across huge swathes of this league – for someone that young to be so important to a top contender.
Flach’s ferocious pressing and intelligent tactical work personifies the Union at their best, and as the DOOPers climb the standings, it’s justifiably elevated his name in US men’s national team circles. He didn’t get the nod from Gregg Berhalter this time around, but that might change in the coming months.
When the Fire finally completed their pursuit of Navarro and got the U22 Initiative signing into their training sessions last month, then-head coach Raphael Wicky described him as “more of a carrier, [whose] role is to recover balls, do more of the dirty work” in deep midfield. The Argentine himself alluded to his abilities to also add to the attack, though, and he popped up with a timely goal to help Chicago ambush NYCFC at SeatGeek Stadium in midweek, the highlight of a superb overall outing:
Navarro’s deflected finish wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty (Sean Johnson surely isn’t proud of his footwork on the play), but it sure was important for a struggling side, even if the win wasn’t enough to keep Wicky in his post. The Fire’s next coach, whoever it may be, will have a valuable piece to build a midfield around.
To be frank, the latest El Trafico – much like LAFC’s season – didn’t live up to the glittering, made-for-TV editions that preceded it. The rangy young center back made sure his side didn’t walk away from Dignity Health Sports Park empty-handed, however, rising well to thump home an early corner kick for his third MLS goal and fending off the LA Galaxy attack.
“He's got all the physical tools to be a special player,” enthused ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman, and he’s right. At just 18 years of age, Fall has become a mainstay of the Black & Gold defense, playing beyond his years during a mostly rough year for his club.
RSL are hanging onto a playoff place for dear life and Saturday’s loss at last-place Austin FC did them no favors in that sense, their second-half comeback attempt falling short under the Texas sun. Their 20-year-old goalkeeper did his damnedest to snatch them a road point, though, making six saves, some of them outstanding.
Ochoa also made four key stops in Salt Lake’s important home win over the Galaxy at midweek, repeatedly denying Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to earn a spot in the MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi. Now he’s jetting over to Spain for a training camp and two friendlies with the Mexican U-21 national team.
Moussa Djitte: Nearly everyone and everything around Austin looks and works better with the Senegalese target man on the pitch, and the win over RSL was a case in point as he proved influential in the buildup to both their goals. Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle delved into that in-depth during his weekly wrap.
Ezequiel Barco: CF Montréal’s 2-1 comeback win at Stade Saputo stung Atlanta United, pushing the Five Stripes a hair below the East’s playoff line. Yet Barco was again the best player on their talent-laden squad, just as he was in the Wednesday win over Inter Miami, as he continues to post one incisive, well-rounded performance after another.
Zan Kolmanic: Austin FC’s steady Slovenian doesn’t generate as many headlines or talking points as Djitte. That said, the YPPOTW junta hasn’t overlooked the 21-year-old’s value, not by a long shot. Not many other young fullbacks handle their team’s left-footed set-piece duties, especially not to the tune of four key passes like Kolmanic posted against RSL.
Danny Leyva: Carving out central-midfield playing time on a team as fearsome as the Seattle Sounders is no small task for an 18-year-old, and Leyva's slow-burn first-team progression reflects that – which is quite alright in the big picture. The kid from Las Vegas made good use of the start Brian Schmetzer handed him in the midweek road win over San Jose, winning the engine-room battle alongside fellow teen Josh Atencio and underlining the Rave Green’s embarrassment of riches.
Gabriel Slonina: As much as has gone wrong for the Windy City club over the past two years, Chicago's 17-year-old homegrown goalkeeper is blossoming into a dependable everyday starter before our eyes. Gaga made his first MLS penalty-kick save in Toronto, stuffing Yeferson Soteldo to keep the Fire in contention.
Audi Goals Drive Progress
MLS Academies have been identified as one of the most important resources for building on-field talent in North America. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative, Audi has committed $1 million per season in an effort to advance academies league-wide, and to drive progress for the sport. For every goal scored in the regular season, Audi will contribute $500 into the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund to directly support each MLS Club Youth Academy.