National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in Matchday 22?

Young Players - 7.3.23

You like dreams, right?

We do too. In fact, this weekly rundown runs on dreams – in particular, the big ones imagined, cherished and chased by young spirits who haven’t yet been beaten down by reality, told over and over again that the odds are just too steep until all too many of them finally let go of their vision, and accept that it’s just a mirage, not a goal to keep pursuing.

It takes a hell of a lot of hard work, resilience, support and good fortune just to make it into the same room as an MLS contract, let alone to keep climbing into a coaching staff’s plans and a gameday roster. The statistics are daunting, disconcerting, sobering enough that most of us so-called ‘grown-ups’ would probably consider a lottery ticket a better bet.

Thank goodness there are still some young’uns out there who still hunt those dreams. Like “The Abilene Dream” who kicks off our Matchday 22 edition.

Any attempt here to summarize Kamungo’s incredible journey from a hut in a Tanzanian refugee camp to his present situation in one or two paragraphs would be woefully inadequate. This young man’s story is worth the time it’ll take you to read this profile, or this one, or spend a few minutes perusing his name in your social media platform or search engine of choice. It’s special.

Yes indeed, “it’s Hollywood,” to borrow the words of Matt Denny, general manager of FCD’s MLS NEXT Pro side North Texas SC, and that was true even before the weekend. But then the 21-year-old went and earned his first career MLS start as shorthanded Dallas hosted mighty LAFC, and then scored the opening goal in their resourceful 2-0 win.

This can be a game of inches, and Kamungo beat John McCarthy to that second ball by approximately a toe’s length. And to be honest, it was just about his only sniff of the ball all game, considering his numbers on the night: 14 touches, 3/4 passes completed, just that one shot on target, 1/2 on dribbles, three defensive actions and 2/5 duels won in 69 minutes.

Nevertheless: goals change games, and with a Jesús Ferreira-sized hole in their attack amid a 1W-4L-2D run of form entering this match, FCD needed something special. An Abilene Dream it is.

The school of thought that gave rise to St. Louis’ frenetic, kinetic high-pressing style was once memorably described as “heavy metal football” by one Jurgen Klopp. The overachieving Midwesterners’ last couple of results have been inspired in no small part by the scion of a very different musical genre, however.

The father of CITY SC’s livewire youngster is genius jazz drummer Ali Jackson Jr., and as respected scribe Benjamin Hochman wrote after AZ’s star turn at San Jose last week – a performance that earned him a spot in the Matchday 21 YPPOTW – there are comparable notes of energy and improvisation in the younger Jackson’s game on the pitch.

It was his dipping, curving corner kick that Tim Parker nodded home for the opening goal in STL’s 2-0 win over Colorado. And when the YPPOTW politburo sees youngsters like him taking set pieces, such a vital component of the modern game, we take notice.

Jackson played three key passes on the night, completed 3/4 dribbles, connected on 2/4 crosses, won 2/4 tackles, won 8/14 duels, drew one foul and tabbed seven recoveries. With the dog days of summer now at hand, the expansion club is still up there in the thin air at the head of the table, tops in the Western Conference and a remarkable fourth in the overall MLS standings, and their ability to identify and integrate overlooked talents like Jackson is no small part of it.

Yes, it’s true. As this columnist and many, many others have observed, IMCF are struggling right now, a luckless team who can’t buy a break, and might need a rescue mission to reach the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

Let’s ditch the negativity for a moment, though. The cupboard awaiting new head coach Tata Martino is hardly bare. Even the brutal succession of gut punches that have hit the Herons this year in the form of one serious injury after another to key starters has a silver lining: They’ve had to hand out heavy minutes to kids like Cremaschi, and the lessons from that baptism by fire could prove vital in the coming months and years.

Cremaschi, 18, notched his third assist of the season in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Austin, his cross finding Josef Martínez for the game’s opening goal. And while his youth and inexperience does inevitably show itself most nights, the kid’s enormous potential is also right there for everyone to see… provided they’re paying attention. His numbers vs. ATX: 17/18 passing (94%), 2/3 on dribbles, 8/15 on duels, four fouls drawn and nine defensive actions.

SKC manager Peter Vermes seems keen to handle Davis with care, managing his minutes and giving him relief/competition by shifting striker Khiry Shelton into the right back role with Graham Zusi out injured. But Shelton’s moments of difficulty with that entirely different assignment from what he’s used to suggest that perhaps there’s a simpler approach on offer.

When coaches find themselves forced to depend on a young, wet-behind-the-ears player, sometimes the best option is to do exactly that: Invest some trust in them and give them a run of games even if and when they make mistakes.

We’ll readily admit to harboring a bit of bias, but from where we’re standing, Davis is Sporting’s best option on the right corner right now. He’s by and large looked capable of the task of everyday MLS starter, and when the rest of the team is playing well and structured appropriately, it provides the homegrown with a framework for success.

That was the case in KC’s 3-0 thumping of Vancouver, where Davis logged a businesslike 90 minutes with a 90% completion rate on his 41 passes, one key pass, 1/1 on dribbles, five defensive actions, two fouls committed and one yellow card. With all due respect: Peter, let the kid cook!

Honorable Mentions

Erik Duenas: Texas has been a house of horrors for Steve Cherundolo, with the LAFC boss now 0-5 all-time in the state and down 7-0 on aggregate this season after Saturday’s loss at FCD. But the Black & Gold’s 18-year-old homegrown was a bright spot, completing 47/55 passes, two chances created, 4/7 on dribbles and seven defensive actions.

Obed Vargas: A couple of MLS insiders told us they consider Vargas to be the pick of the litter among the talent-rich US squad that reached the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup. And verily, the kid from Alaska was his usual quietly effective self in the Seattle Sounders1-0 win over Houston, completing 91% of his passes, hitting 2/3 accurate long balls and making three interceptions and two recoveries at Lumen Field.

Lazar Stefanovic: Another matchday, another loss for reeling, shorthanded Toronto FC. But hark, their 16-year-old academy product got on the field after rising from TFC II to sign a short-term agreement for reinforcements, and the kid didn’t look the least bit out of place. The highly-rated Canadian youth international defender completed 12/14 passes and contributed 10 defensive actions in his 33 minutes on the pitch vs. Real Salt Lake. Keep an eye on this one.