National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 11?

Young players 5.8.23

Winless? Out of form? Roster ravaged by injuries?

In the past, the all-too-common conventional wisdom for crises like these in MLS was to acquire or elevate veterans or otherwise known quantities, "guys that have been there before" and so on.

It says much about the league’ youthful evolution that several of this week’s nominees stepped into the breach to give their teams vital contributions when the chips were (and in many cases still are) down. We’ll start with one such example in South Florida.

First the Herons lost influential central midfielder Gregore to a long-term Lisfranc (foot) injury in March. Then last week Gregore's engine-room partner Jean Mota was ruled out for 4-6 months due to a damaged LCL in his right knee. The guts of Phil Neville’s preferred XI had been torn out for the rest of 2023, it seemed.

So imagine the delight among the IMCF faithful when Ruiz, 19, turned in a match-winning performance in his first MLS start on Saturday, producing both a pivotal play and a sold overall outing in their 2-1 home win over Atlanta United.

ATL old boy Josef Martínez hogged the headlines, with good reason, as he bagged his 99th and 100th career MLS regular-season goals to sink his former club in their first reunion since his painful offseason departure. It was Ruiz who earned the penalty kick on the opening goal, however. And the Honduran youth international – who will represent his parents’ homeland at the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup – also logged 45 touches, 90% passing completion, 2/3 tackles, 5/9 duels and two interceptions across his 85 minutes on the pitch.

Not bad for a kid who inked his homegrown contract a matter of days beforehand, a deal he certainly deserved after seizing the opportunity presented by the short-term deals Miami signed him to in the weeks leading up to it.

The Verde & Black haven’t won a match in nearly two months, precipitating a hasty Concacaf Champions League exit and a queasy slide all the way down to 26th in the overall league table. One of the silver linings – or perhaps it’s an indictment, come to think of it? – of this dour time in central Texas is that an 18-year-old has arguably been their best player this season.

That would be Teen Wolff, who was crucial in ATX’s very timely, last-gasp 2-2 draw at Portland over the weekend. The coach’s kid notched a secondary assist on Austin’s opening goal, then got a primary one by dropping an absolute DIME onto the head of Will Bruin to stun Providence Park in injury time:

The homegrown completed 86% of his 36 passes, won 6/8 duels and tabbed four recoveries on the night, and looks increasingly confident and comfortable with the multifold duties of a box-to-box center mid. Maybe ATX’s Designated Players can take some inspiration from the young’un, who earned a place on the Team of the Matchday presented by Audi bench.

Ho hum, another sterling 90 minutes in another positive Revs result means another YPPOTW nod for Buck. The homegrown teenager was all over the place – in a good way – at BMO Field as New England beat Toronto FC 2-0 to ensure Bruce Arena would get one over on his former coworker and longtime counterpart Bob Bradley.

Buck, 18, went 43/52 on pass completion (83%), 5/7 tackles, 11/17 on duels, completed 3/4 dribbles and chipped in six recoveries and two clearances. He and his teammates are also getting comfortable flashing his signature ‘antlers’ sign after another good day at the office:

What are we calling that thing, anyway? Has anyone trademarked ‘8-pointer’ yet? Might as well get started on that front, because this kid is on track for big things.

Clip on your helmet and goggles, because now we’re base-jumping from the top of the overall table down to the bottom, where SKC were looking down and desperate heading into Matchday 11.

With nothing going right in any areas of the pitch and fans at Children’s Mercy Park audibly turning on Peter Vermes, the league’s last winless squad needed some inspiration as they entered the Lumen Field crucible to face the Seattle Sounders on Sunday. Who’d have expected them to get a spark from a relatively unheard-of 21-year-old fullback from Rochester, Michigan?

Making just his second career MLS start, Davis was massive on Sporting’s right corner, completing 25/31 passes, winning 5/6 duels and 2/3 tackles and making seven recoveries and two clearances, all without committing a single foul as SKC stunned Seattle 2-1 to bag a much, much, much-needed three points.

The homegrown, a product of the KC academy’s residential program who relocated from Michigan to the Great Plains and lived with a homestay to chase his professional dreams, limited the impact of tricky Sounders winger Léo Chú, then adapted to a very different challenge when Jordan Morris shifted from up top to the Seattle left flank late in the game.

The Loons flew home from British Colombia with precious little in their beaks after the 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, save perhaps the encouraging news that Emanuel Reynoso has finally returned to Minnesota, and the sight of their new U22 Initiative signing opening his MLS account.

An incisive pass from Robin Lod found Jeong ghosting into a small pocket of space among Vancouver’s defenders and the South Korean made no mistake with a clinical finish for his first MNUFC goal, cutting the Caps’ lead in half and making them sweat out the final stages of what should’ve been a comfortable win.

He also played two key passes, completed 76% of his overall distribution and took four corner kicks.

Honorable Mentions

Ralph Priso: The Colorado Rapids deepened the LA Galaxy’s woes with a comprehensive 3-1 win in Carson, and their young center mid was a quiet linchpin. The Toronto FC product was generally clean with the ball, won most of his duels and hit double digits in total defensive actions to stymie Riqui Puig & Co.

Benja Cremaschi: Like Ruiz, Cremaschi gave Miami hope that their kids are alright in the win over Atlanta. He did more hard running in the heart of the Herons’ midfield and seems on track for heavy usage in the coming months – unless he nabs a spot on the US Under-20s’ World Cup squad this week, perhaps.

Brian Gutiérrez: Chicago Fire FC’s leaders made clear their dissatisfaction with the status quo by dismissing coach Ezra Hendrickson on Monday. “Guti” remains one of the few blameless parties in the Windy City, though. Even coming off the bench at halftime of their 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Nashville SC, he passed at 88%, created one chance, went 4/4 on dribbles and 6/7 on duels, underlining why the Fire say they can’t afford to release him for the U-20 World Cup.