National Writer: Charles Boehm

Prospect watch: Best young-player performers in MLS Week 1

MLS’s opening weekend finally arrived, ending an offseason that always seems too long, even when it’s the shortest in league history. And when it did, it treated us to another cornucopia of key contributions from young players, who grow more and more central to the league every year.

So we’re back to run down some of the top performers among players aged 22 and under – and as readers of our 2021 series can attest, the competition for these slots is fierce.

Remember, you too can take part in this process. Just look for a tweet like this from me, usually on Mondays, seeking nominations for the best and brightest among the most recent batch of matchdays.

Special note: Rest assured that the YPPOTW junta has taken full note of the outstanding Concacaf Champions League performances turned in by Seattle’s Obed Vargas and CF Montréal teenagers Rida Zouhir and Ismael Kone last month. In the interests of fairness, however, we have to focus on league play. Along those lines, the trio just missed the cut here.

Here we go…

Bob Bradley gave the TFC teenager his fifth career MLS start as the Reds visited FC Dallas, and the freshly-converted fullback did all right. How all right? Try this for a 17-year-old’s stat line: 90 minutes, 91 touches, 93% pass completion, one key pass, an expected-assists number of 0.50, 2/2 on dribbles, two fouls drawn, 11 recoveries, three interceptions, 8/10 duels won. It all added up to a spot in the first MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi of 2022.

That paragraph kind of speaks for itself, no?

Of course it’s early days, a caution that can be applied to most of this list. JMR must now show that he can produce at or near this level week in, week out, and eventually contribute some end product, because in Bradley’s system he’s certainly going to be given clearance to fly forward and join the attack with regularity.

A club that usually trends towards “long in the tooth” added this splash of youth via the U22 Initiative signing last year, and the 21-year-old Colombian keeps showing his value. Moreno chipped in four assists and a postseason goal after his summer arrival to help Portland reach MLS Cup 2021, and on Saturday opened his ‘22 account with another helper – an elegant little chip to set up Dairon Asprilla for the first of the Rose City side’s two equalizers against New England.

Moreno also won most of his duels and passed at an 85% clip, impressive given how many of them were forward-oriented, and a sign of his aggression and enterprise as he slashed in from the flank. He looks to be a crucial cog in the PTFC attack. Don’t believe me? Listen to Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle:

“Moreno is a hand-in-glove fit both with Portland’s personnel and just in terms of raising the floor for what has too often over the years been a stagnant attack.”

Covering ground, getting stuck in, winning duels, playing incisive passes and staying faithful to defensive responsibilities: These are foundational qualities in the Red Bulls system, and even at just 19, you can tell that Tolkin has been steeped in the taurine ways.

With a maverick’s personality and the flamboyant, ever-evolving hairstyle to match it, the homegrown left back has been playing beyond his years for some time now. He was one of RBNY’s top performers in their well-taken road win over San Jose – and what he lacks in precision, he makes up for with work, desire, intensity and sheer relentlessness.

The European outposts in the Red Bull global network are surely taking notice.

Two assists, three key passes and 83% passing completion in a thumping 3-0 home win is a good day indeed for the Ecuadorian, who is asked to do a little bit of everything in the heart of the Black & Gold midfield and usually meets the challenge.

Cifu” played provider for two of Carlos Vela’s three goals against Colorado, and his pace and energy on the other side of the ball makes it much easier for a less physical lone No. 6 like Ilie Sanchez to dictate the game from deep.

Now 22 and a regular national-team call-up, it’s worth wondering when big clubs abroad may accelerate their pursuit and play LAFC with legitimate transfer offers. This kid could be bound for big things.

The heroics of teenager Caleb Wiley on his MLS debut were the headline-grabber from ATL’s 3-1 win over Sporting KC, and understandably so. (More on him in a moment.) However the data indicates that Campbell, 20, was actually a top performer, not only among the game’s young players but everyone on the pitch.

The center back accrued an 88% passing rate in his seventh MLS start, including several accurate long balls, as well as 10 clearances, two interceptions, an 80% success rate on duels and nary a single foul committed.

This is just the kind of display coach Gonzalo Pineda will love to see at the heart of his defense, and the prospect of a Campbell-Miles Robinson central pairing is looking quite enticing indeed for the Five Stripes.

Honorable Mentions

Caleb Wiley: For a 17-year-old to score a victory-clinching goal on his first-team debut is beautiful and heart-warming (I urge all readers to go check out the video clips of his parents’ emotional celebrations in the stands at Mercedes-Benz Stadium), and provides another point of encouragement for ATLUTD’s academy. Talk about making the most of just six touches and 15 minutes on the pitch!

Gaga Slonina: Something tells me we’re going to be talking about the Chicago Fire’s 17-year-old goalkeeper quite a bit in 2022. The kid stood tall against a better-than-expected Inter Miami attack, making four saves and posting a clean sheet despite a 1.5 expected-goals conceded number that shows he had work to do.

Julian Araujo: The LA Galaxy’s young right back has made a habit out of good habits, so to speak – few players his age are starting as often or performing as consistently as he has since his initial breakthrough in 2019. The 20-year-old Mexican international worked hard, defended well and played two key passes in the 1-0 win over defending champs NYCFC.

Noah Allen: Inter Miami signed the academy kid to a short-term contract in the leadup to their opener, usually a sign that another bench player is needed to pad depth and will return to the second team in short order. But Allen got the starting nod at left wingback, and acquitted himself quite well, working hard in both directions across his first 78 minutes of MLS play.


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.