National Writer: Charles Boehm

Which young players shined brightest during MLS Week 3?

A young South American duo lit up Yankee Stadium in the defending champions’ dominant home opener. A $7 million Young Designated Player made his price tag look pedestrian in his spectacular debut. A high school-aged goalkeeper posted yet another MLS clean sheet to keep his side undefeated. And a Brazilian quietly dominated his side of the pitch in his club’s second straight win over an Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs team.

Those were the highlights, albeit far from the complete list of kids playing, and playing at high levels, across MLS in Week 3. Whittling them down to a shortlist was difficult, but here’s our best shot.

As always, you can contribute to the YPPOTW selection process directly: Just find a tweet like this from me on or around Monday and tell me who you think deserves a nod.

Already off to a strong start in the Cityzens’ busy spring, Talles was man of the match in NYCFC’s 4-1 romp over CF Montréal. He bagged a goal and an assist in a sensational overall outing that earned him a no-brainer spot in the MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi, and also produced one of the league's best goals-added numbers at 0.73.

It’s not just what the Brazilian is showing individually, but his ability to craft chemistry and understanding with his talented teammates that’s making him so dangerous. The 19-year-old attacker arrived in Gotham back in May 2021 from Vasco da Gama, and showed flashes of real quality last season, but may be destined to reach another level with more familiarity and a full preseason under his belt.

Maybe this is a good time to point out that City paid a reported $12 million transfer fee to get him, a lofty number by MLS standards that may yet resemble a square deal indeed.

MLS’s evolution towards a true selling league means not only growing players worthy of investment from buyers abroad, but doing so with enough consistency that outbound sales can be replaced and replicated with as much regularity as possible.

In the case of the Rapids, that looks like Sam Vines getting sold for seven figures to Belgium's Royal Antwerp last summer with his replacement – and possibly even upgrade – immediately secured. That would be Esteves, 21, currently on loan from Palmeiras and looking very much like a left wingback the Mile High Club will be keen to acquire permanently.

The Brazilian served up the game-winning assist in Colorado’s 2-0 win over Sporting KC, his second helper in as many matches and one of two key passes on the night, in addition to going 4/4 on tackles and generally doing everything that’s asked of a wide player in the 3-4-3 formation Robin Fraser is currently employing.

Am I going to have to post another myth-busting rant about the chronically-maligned SuperDraft? The dismissive attitude towards it that plagues huge swathes of the MLS environment can be infuriating and… OK, look, let’s just talk about this year’s No. 1 pick instead, since he was CLTFC’s best player in their last-gasp, gut-punch loss at Atlanta on Sunday, their best performance to date.

Bender is 21. He’s been in a fully professional environment for a matter of weeks and was asked to play in a less-familiar left wing spot in his first start before moving centrally later in the match. He handled all this with unfazed aplomb, working hard in both directions and delivering some quality service into the box, including on four corner kicks, one of which led to Adam Armour’s equalizer, the first goal in club history. The Baltimore kid played a team-high five key passes, posted an 85% pass completion rate and won 80% of his duels.

Miguel Angel Ramirez should have Polish international winger Kamil Jozwiak available any day now, but he’ll have to find a way to keep Bender on the pitch.

Just one team in MLS has yet to concede a single goal, and it’s the one backstopped by a 17-year-old goalkeeper. This is a notable distinction both in this young season and all-time:

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? In 14 career starts, Gaga has posted clean sheets in seven of them. And while the 2022 Fire look much improved over last year’s edition, it’s not as if he’s been doing this on a dominant squad ensuring he’s a bored bystander. If you’re looking for a nit to pick, he hasn’t completed passes at a high rate, but lots of team factors affect that.

Gregg Berhalter probably isn’t ready to start Slonina in the US men’s national team’s massive trip to Estadio Azteca next week. The fact I can even type those words as a faint possibility speaks volumes.

Numbers matter in this sport – numbers like a $7 million transfer fee for a player aged 19, who’d already made 69 first-team appearances for Argentina’s CA Independiente, and needed only 26 minutes off the bench in his FCD debut to show why he’s so highly rated, contributing greatly to the three points bagged by his new team.

Moments matter, too. While Velasco’s numbers were decent in that limited time frame, the slashing solo run and artful finish through a slew of Nashville SC defenders is what we’ll remember most and longest, especially those who were present in that euphoric crowd at Toyota Stadium. And so here I’m going to stop typing and post the video and respectfully urge you to watch it again:

Honorable mentions

Santi Rodriguez: The Uruguayan on the other side of NYCFC’s attacking band of three had himself just about as good a week as Talles Magno, shining in the Concacaf Champions League win over Comunicaciones before tabbing another goal+assist outing against Montréal. He’s been consistently good since his arrival and he’s been in MLS less than a year; even better may yet be ahead.

Edwin Cerrillo: The front-foot 4-3-3 preferred by both the USMNT and Dallas’ new coach Nico Estevez puts a ton of responsibility on its lone defensive mid. So far the 21-year-old Cerrillo is looking like Frisco’s Tyler Adams with efficient passing, rangy, muscular defensive work and intelligent reading of the game in their first three games, his stifling of Nashville the most impressive.

Nate Harriel: The 20-year-old kept the Philadelphia Union’s right back spot on lock with a rugged performance vs. San Jose that earned him a bench spot in the MLS Team of the Week. Harriel won 12 duels, made five tackles, four interceptions and forced a solid save out of JT Marcinkowski at the other end as Philly posted a clean sheet.

Sofiane Djeffal: D.C. United’s rookie central midfielder might turn out to be one of the most useful second-round SuperDraft selections in recent memory. A former academy prospect at FC Nantes before opting for a college experience at Oregon State, the 22-year-old Frenchman impressed United during preseason and maintained that momentum in his first start:

Niko Tsakiris: The Quakes didn’t have a ton to be happy about from their decisive defeat on the East Coast. But we’re saving some room to give the homegrown Tsakiris, one of the youngest first-team players in the league, a shout on the occasion of his MLS debut at 16 years, 8 months and 23 days of age. The technical midfielder more than held his own, too, completing eight of nine passes in 13 minutes. He’s a sign of the Bay Area talent waiting to be put to fuller use by his club.


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.