National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 1?

Young Players - Matchday 1

Our weekly rundown of the highest-performing young players across MLS returns for another season, highlighting the outstanding displays among the league’s steadily-growing ranks of young’uns.

New for this year: We’re thrilled to dive headlong into the 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR camp, adopting the same eligibility statutes as the vaunted annual 22U22 countdown that will unfold later in 2023. That means our player pool shifts even a bit younger than in the past, with only those included whose 22nd birthday does not take place before Decision Day, the final matchday of the regular season, on Oct. 21, 2023.

And remember, you too can take part in this process. We’re always looking for nominations, so find a tweet like this one, usually on a Sunday or Monday, and let us know what U22 players you were most impressed by:

Matchday 1 starts in the United States’ capital city, where a skillful homegrown bailed out his elder teammates on Saturday.

Arguably the wildest match of opening day unfolded at Audi Field, where the home side needed some help after blowing an early lead over Toronto FC and trailing 2-1 as injury time began. That’s when TKDP went to work for the Black-and-Red.

Ku-DiPietro started just two MLS matches last season even as D.C. labored to the Wooden Spoon. And the just-turned-21-year-old played like someone with something to prove to manager Wayne Rooney in Saturday’s substitute outing, completing all eight of his passes, including the assist he dropped onto Christian Benteke’s head for the equalizer. But he wasn’t done.

That clinical near-post finish makes TKDP the fourth-youngest player in league history to notch both a game-winning goal and an assist in the same match after coming off the bench. Something tells us he’s earned a few more minutes when United visit Columbus this weekend.

Preseason predictions are a devilishly difficult annual ritual, perennially subject to resentment, second-guessing and mockery – just ask the Verde-clad laminators down in Austin. So the YPPOTW supreme committee can’t help but take heart when a young player vindicates our faith like Buck did in Matchday 1.

After earning a spot in our list of homegrown breakout candidates for ‘23, the Revs’ 17-year-old center midfielder was one of the best players on the pitch at Bank of America Stadium, tenaciously fighting the engine-room battles next to Matt Polster and Carles Gil to lay the groundwork for Henry Kessler’s last-gasp game-winner over Charlotte FC.

Go check out some of the touch compilations on social media. Not only did Buck win back possession and play the pass-before-the-pass that led to Kessler’s late strike, but he also delivered the delicious service into the box that Kessler had clanged off the woodwork earlier in the match. And he was clever both on and off the ball throughout, sniffing out danger in key moments and using his body adeptly to make life difficult for Brandt Bronico and his CLTFC teammates.

The Timbers won on opening day for the first time since 2017, and they have their 20-year-old right back to thank. Mosquera netted the only goal in their 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, a game rescheduled to Monday night due to heavy winter weather in the Rose City.

With fitness, sharpness and tactical organization often works in progress, the early weeks of any season tend to feature scrappy, chaotic periods of play. Mosquera showed admirable instincts to cash in during just such a sequence in this match’s opening minutes.

Roaming forward to trouble his opposite number Ben Sweat, Mosquera lingered along the front line and was rewarded. He goaded Sweat into a turnover deep in his own end before linking up with his fellow Colombian Yimmi Chara in the SKC penalty box, then cuffing a low finish underneath John Pulskamp.

Mosquera also went 5/7 on tackles, made three clearances and two interceptions and was strong in the air to help PTFC weather Sporting's fightback.

After the young Frenchman arrived in North Carolina last August, we marveled at his tidiness both technically and tactically as he stepped into the starting XI less than a month after his signing. The 21-year-old center back continued that on Matchday 1 of the new campaign.

Malanda went 3/3 on dribbles, 2/2 on tackles and completed 83% of his passes in the narrow loss to New England, even earning some praise from opposing coach Bruce Arena afterward. And in that spirit, we’re not about to let Kessler’s late winner distract us from another solid outing for the kid.

Malanda is one to watch this year. The underlying data loves what he’s done in MLS thus far, to the point that some observers are projecting him to blossom into one of the top center backs in league history. And he can only benefit from the arrival of Bill Tuiloma as his central partner, considering the New Zealand international’s vast experience and French language skills honed during his time at Marseille.

As if a wild 3-2 comeback road win over Austin FC in their inaugural match wasn’t enjoyable enough, this year’s expansion newcomers notched another promising, and rare, achievement over the weekend: Fielding a homegrown on day one.

That would be Perez, who at the tender age of 17 was given half an hour-plus on the pitch by coach Bradley Carnell. And in a tight game in one of the league’s more intense environments, the young midfielder showed he belonged, completing 29/36 passes, including one key pass, making 3/4 tackles and winning a few aerial duels.

Given their high-intensity pressing style – STL logged some of the highest running stats in Matchday 1 – and the region’s deeply-rooted soccer culture, playing the kids is a smart move for CITY SC, and we’re more eager than ever to see how Perez and others chip in over the long haul.

Honorable Mentions

Darren Yapi: Sunday was largely a Seattle trip to forget for the Colorado Rapids, but their teenage No. 9 was a silver lining in their 4-0 thumping at the hands of the Sounders. Yapi went 3/6 on dribbles, played two key passes and rattled an early drive off the crossbar, just inches away from what could have been a game-changing moment.

Michael Halliday: Forty-seven touches, 72% pass completion, one key pass and several defensive actions in a 1-0 home win? Yeah, we'd say Orlando City's 20-year-old homegrown right back got the year off to a decent start.

Kerwin Vargas: We were intrigued by the Colombian winger’s limited appearances in 2022 and he nearly donned the hero’s cape against the Revs, coming off the bench to spark Charlotte’s attack with three key passes and a late header off the post.