School’s out for summer, to quote a well-known septuagenarian rocker, and the kids were back on the pitch as MLS returned from the international break. If Week 8’s minutes and contributions are any indication, the competition for YPPOTW places could be stiff in the hot days ahead.

Here’s the results of my deliberations on the league's best and brightest young performers.

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Get named to the US men’s national team’s preliminary Gold Cup roster on Friday morning, light up Red Bull Arena on Friday night. Not bad!

At this point, it’s more surprising when Baby Bull No. 1 isn’t on this list than when he is. Week after week, the 18-year-old Minnesotan puts in the work and makes decisive contributions. While he’s here for a lot more than his assist on Kyle Duncan’s lovely clincher in a 2-0 win over Nashville, that play is a microcosm of why Clark is such a stratospheric prospect. He boasts excellent technique as paired with next-level understanding of the game’s subtler points.

Kudos are due to an intriguing debutant, as the Sounders’ French center back got his first taste of MLS action after earning promotion from their second team last month. Anchoring a come-from-behind road win over the LA Galaxy in relief of cult legend Nouhou Tolo is a good way to do that!

Sounder At Heart’s Miki Turner summed it up better than I can:

“Signed from the Tacoma Defiance earlier this year, Cissoko hardly put a foot wrong in his debut, helping the Sounders keep Chicharito off the score sheet. The 21-year-old appears to be another potential find for the Sounders as they look to continue to inject youth into the first-team squad.”

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It’s true: Numbers do sometimes lie. But they certainly didn’t for the Black-and-Red’s twinkle-toed wide man in their 1-0 win over Inter Miami.

Paredes is looking increasingly comfortable as a wingback in Hernan Losada’s high-tempo system and was another notable young inclusion in Gregg Berhalter’s 60-player Gold Cup list. While I suspect he’s seen as mostly an advanced winger in the USMNT’s usual 4-3-3, the left flank in general looks like a promising spot to show yourself as an option.

Congrats are due to the Lions’ 22-year-old goalkeeper, who was solid in what I believe was his top-flight first-team professional debut in Saturday’s wild 3-2 defeat of Toronto FC. While his stats show as many saves as goals conceded, that belies the pressure that the Reds put Austin and his defense under, as reflected by TFC’s 2.8 expected goals. The Tottenham Hotspur loanee was deputizing for Pedro Gallese while the Peruvian is on Copa America duty.

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Some backstory here: Austin is an English-American dual national who’s spent time in camps with both youth national team programs, and both seem keen to court his loyalty on a permanent basis. He was well-regarded enough at Spurs to make some Premier League gameday squads as their No. 3 GK. We’ll see if Orlando extend his six-month loan through the rest of the year.

The big bad Bryan Reynolds sale aside, not a whole lot has gone right for the North Texans thus far in 2021, as their place at the foot of the Western Conference table indicates. And FCD got overall outplayed again at home last Saturday by Minnesota United. But they can thank their 18-year-old homegrown striker – yet another teenager who was given the prelim-roster nod of encouragement by Berhalter – for a hard-earned point.

Dallas really need someone to step up and show some sustained, reliable finishing nous if they're to climb out of their current predicament. I’m watching closely to see if Pepi is a No. 9 they can depend on.

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Honorable mentions

Jaylin Lindsey: The fullback was a bright spot in Sporting's 2-1 loss at Portland, stroking a lovely side-footed strike into the top corner to open the scoring. While Lindsey was at the scene of the crime for both Timbers’ goals, proximity is not causality here.

Tom Edwards: You’d hardly have known the Englishman is a specialist right back by the way he authoritatively patrolled the base of RBNY's midfield on Friday. Edwards is currently on loan from Stoke City.

Ayo Akinola: Another loss for TFC, another goal for Akinola, who’s now scored in two straight MLS matches and, based on the Gold Cup squad lists, appears to have switched his international allegiance to Canada.

Zan Kolmanic: All the other expansion-year stories in Austin have overshadowed the consistency and usefulness of ATX’s young loanee left back. Kolmanic’s required impact intensified when Ben Sweat went down injured.

Thiago Andrade: One of NYCFC’s young Brazilian reinforcements, he passed cleanly and banged home a Goal of the Week contender on his club debut. Andrade entered at halftime for Talles Magno.

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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.

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