National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in Matchday 15?

Young Players 5.29.23

Did you know? MLS history was made – or at least matched – on Saturday night, and we don’t even have room for all of these guys on this week’s rundown:

There’s likely more where that came from in the months ahead. Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer across the United States, and the same sunshine and rising temperatures that make for grilling or beach weather will also test the stamina and resolve of players across MLS.

Even at the biggest clubs, the squad rotation this necessitates provides opportunities for young players. Here’s one view on that process, from Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes, after homegrown Felipe Hernández – who’s aged out of YPPOTW eligibility but followed a path quite similar to this column’s subjects – came off the bench to score in SKC’s 4-1 thumping of Portland on Sunday:

“Felipe gets a chance to enter the game and he creates a great opportunity to score, because he's not asked to come in and take all the weight of the team on his shoulders. He can now be a participation player within the group and now his qualities can come out and he can have a real effect on the team.”

We’ll start with just one such example up in Cascadia.

Their 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls wasn’t all that pretty, and it may have cost them the availability of Jordan Morris for a while thanks to a suspected groin injury on his game-winning goal. But the Rave Green are back atop the Western Conference table and they’ve gotten there with several regulars sidelined or limited.

One of them is Nouhou, the cult hero who’s only now pushing back towards full fitness after missing several games with a case of malaria. So Baker stepped up to fill Seattle’s left back slot, and on Saturday produced a very solid 90 minutes in just his third career MLS start.

Working well with Léo Chú along the flanks, the 19-year-old homegrown was involved in the passing sequence that led to Morris’ winner and held his own in a testy ongoing battle with Tom Barlow that saw both players earn yellow cards. Overall, Baker completed 39/50 passes and made 11 recoveries, four clearances, two interceptions and won 4/6 duels, coping well with the particular challenges posed by the RBNY high press.

It’s worth noting that Baker was converted from center back to left back earlier in his Sounders development; he looks comfortable and fluid despite being inverted as a right-foot-dominant player. And how cool is this little callback, shared by his mom on Twitter:

Don’t ask us to predict where the Fire’s season is going to end up; the team formerly known as the Men in Red remain too much of a cipher at present, as shown by their bewildering but fun draw at New England, their second 3-3 result in as many weekends and third of the year. What we are more confident about is that young talent is central to their hopes of a climb into Audi MLS Cup Playoffs contention.

Arriving from PAOK via the U22 Initiative over the winter, Koutsias is still finding his feet in MLS but his work against the Revs was an encouraging data point. The Greece youth international got the Fire off to a dream start with his second goal in as many games, making a clever run found by an excellent ball over the top by Xherdan Shaqiri and confidently finishing past Djordje Petrovic:

“Our ability in transition to break the first line, and if we could find Shaq where he was able to turn and have runs behind, we knew we would get opportunities like that,” said coach Frank Klopas of the play. “[Koutsias] worked extremely hard. He's just going to continue to develop and get better and better. We used him out wide almost as a second forward coming in, and yeah, he showed a lot of composure with that finish. You see his pace, getting behind.”

Koutsias also had a big hand in the Andrew Farrell own goal that made it 2-0 Chicago, and may be benefiting from the perspective brought by the Greek-American Klopas in charge. We’ll be watching his progress with interest.

The biggest story of the week in MLS has probably been TFC, with their drastic underachievement on the pitch now bracketed by confirmation of the league’s highest wage bill and lurid stories of conflict and drama in and around the locker room.

All that backstory has surely complicated the process of their homegrown academy products’ ascension into first-team contributors, a problem made that much more pressing by the imbalances in the Reds roster that make it vital for exactly that to take place. So credit is due not only to stars like Lorenzo Insigne stepping up under pressure to secure Saturday’s 2-1 win over D.C. United – that’s what veterans are supposed to do – but kids like Kerr and Kosi Thompson doing their part.

Reminder: creating an uncontested header like that is usually more complicated than it looks. Filling the wing role usually occupied by Federico Bernardeschi, the 20-year-old was a difference-maker, and not just with that clinical execution of a corner-kick set piece.

Sustaining contributions like this from their youngsters is vital to TFC’s hopes of a 2023 turnaround.

Yep, Buck’s back. And it’s not hard to tell why.

We could extol his two-way play in midfield as the Revs clawed back from an early hole against the Fire, and lay out statistics like his 35/44 passing completion and two key passes, his 3/5 tackles won or seven recoveries.

We could remind you that the kid is still just 18, and probably would be with the US Under-20 national team at the U-20 World Cup right now if it wasn’t for the central importance he’s taken on for the Revolution in such a short time, which made the question of his release for international duty too complex for U-20s coach Mikey Varas to deal with.

But nah, let’s just run the tape. Buck scored an absolute banger on Saturday:

Officially, “Miggy” only logged 18 minutes in STL’s 3-1 home win over Vancouver, but we’re cutting him plenty of slack. It was a busy week, considering he’d just graduated from high school two nights before.

And the homegrown midfielder got plenty accomplished in his time on the pitch at CITYPARK, ghosting into the box to roof a fine finish that sealed the W and marked his first career MLS goal:

The 18-year-old also completed 3/5 passes and contributed three defensive actions, earning plenty of love from the hometown crowd in a city that holds a special affection for its native sons and daughters of soccer. The sheer collective euphoria around Perez’s big moment is one more special experience for CITY SC in a debut season that’s already rife with them.

Honorable mentions

Alan Velasco: We already talked about specialists and role players doing their bit at this time of year, but let’s not forget how many U22s are entrusted with larger responsibilities around the league. FC Dallas need Velasco to be The Guy for their attack from week to week. The Young Designated Player completed 4/5 dribbles, won 10/15 duels and made the decisive play on their last-minute equalizer at San Jose, pinging a gorgeous long-range delivery for Nkosi Tafari to flick into the top corner to snatch a road point:

Kosi Thompson: Called off the bench not 20 minutes into Toronto-D.C. due to an injury to Brandon Servania, Thompson handled that tricky engine-room assignment well, winning 4/5 duels, 2/2 tackles and passing at a 75% clip. Oh, and he arrived in the box perfectly to calmly dispatch Insigne’s square for the game-winning goal:

Ibrahim Aliyu: The Nigerian youth international has brought a useful injection of directness to the Houston Dynamo attack. He scored his first goal in Naranja during their US Open Cup win over Minnesota on Tuesday, then extended that momentum with a good showing in the win over Austin, going 5/5 on dribbles, 7/10 on duels and completing 75% of his passes, including one key pass.