National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 12?

Young Players 5.15.23

The games are coming fast and thick as we approach the busy summer stretch of the MLS season – a period that tests roster depth like no other.

Simply put, a congested schedule means players around the league are going to have to step it up a notch. However, anybody who's been reading this column in 2023 knows there are more and more youngsters capable of not just meeting, but surpassing these expectations.

We always back up our claims, so here are five more examples (plus honorable mentions!) from Matchday 12:

Perhaps no one in MLS needed the full three points more badly this weekend than the Galaxy, whose Cali Clásico win over in-form San Jose hauled them out of last place in both the Western Conference and overall tables. Which prompts us to riff a bit this week and slot in both of their U22 Initiative fullbacks atop our rundown.

That’s how good they both were, and how necessary it was for the talented but defensively slipshod Gs. Aude stayed at home to focus on the threat of Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Cristian Espinoza and after some early openings, effectively shut down the Quakes’ showpiece winger, winning 3/3 tackles, 5/5 duels and six recoveries while also completing 91% of his passes and going 2/2 on dribbles.

Calegari, meanwhile, produced an excellent all-around outing, passing at 98%, playing three key passes, winning 6/7 tackles, 7/13 duels and five recoveries. It’s not common for MLS clubs to funnel big resources to the two fullback spots, which tells you a) how good these two South Americans are and b) how direly needed some dependable quality was in those areas for LA.

“If we defend like we did tonight, we're going to win many more games. I just firmly believe that with our group, because we have a lot of good soccer players. But defending is something we need to concentrate on. And tonight we did,” said Galaxy head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney. “Lucas and Julián continue to grow inside of the team and Lucas was exceptional.

“[Aude] stayed at home a little bit more, obviously, and so he was in positions to deal with Espinoza, who I think is a fantastic player. … Because Julián wasn't as involved in the attacking and trying to do too much on the attacking side, he was just in positions to be able to defend and use his energy and his thinking to deal with a very good player.”

🚨🚨 Gordie Howe hat trick alert in South Florida 🚨🚨

Hear that klaxon? If you’re not well versed in hockey jargon, we’re talking about the rare, pugnacious trifecta that also translates well in soccer: A goal, an assist and a red card in the same game, in this case Miami’s 2-1 ambush of the league-leading New England Revolution.

This is a 19-year-old midfielder who just signed his homegrown deal a couple of weeks ago, and now he’s at the heart of the Herons’ three-game winning streak, which has vanquished the six-match losing skid that had them in such deep trouble last month. Yes, Ruiz’s goal took a heavy deflection to beat Djordje Petrovic, but any discount we apply there should be counterbalanced by the exquisite pass the teenager played to start the move:

No, we’re not giving him a pass for the second yellow that forced his teammates to cling to their lead in the final minutes – merely recognizing that it’s the other side of the sword to the useful range and bite that Ruiz has brought to the engine room. Besides the 1g/1a, the dual-national Honduran-American tabbed 58 touches, 35/43 passing completion, 2/3 on dribbles, 2/4 on tackles, 7/14 on duels and three fouls drawn, four committed.

An even younger midfielder than Ruiz was also centrally involved in the proceedings at DRV PNK Stadium. Buck continues to make himself nigh undroppable from the YPPOTW reckoning.

On Saturday only a very strict interpretation of a clause in the offside rule prevented the 18-year-old from scoring what would’ve been his second goal of the year, as Latif Blessing was ruled to have screened Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender on the finish:

If that equalizer is allowed to stand, do the Revs kick on and turn Carles Gil’s subsequent strike into the winner? We’ll never know. But we do know that Buck also completed 88% of his passes, including one chance created and 4/5 long balls, went 2/3 on dribbles and contributed several defensive actions.

Like Buck in Fort Lauderdale, Guti did well to shake off the disappointment of not being part of the US squad announced last week for the FIFA U-20 World Cup by leading Chicago to their second win of the week over St. Louis CITY SC (could this be a budding rivalry along the lines of Cubs-Cardinals?).

Also like Buck, Gutiérrez just keeps putting himself in the frame week in, week out – and now he might just be hauling Xherdan Shaqiri along for the ride. The teenage homegrown interchanged well with the veteran Designated Player, covering ground, knitting together combinations and laying the groundwork for the game’s lone goal. It was reflected in his MLS Team of the Matchday presented by Audi nod, too.

“They're smart players,” said Frank Klopas, the club icon promoted to head coach in the wake of Ezra Hendrickson’s departure. “You can see at moments how easy it is for them to connect and play together; they're on the same wavelength. So, the more time that they stay injury-free, the sharper they will be. And if that happens, I think you can see a big difference in this team.”

Honorable Mentions

Ted Ku-DiPietro: After D.C. United coughed up a soft, fluky goal, their 21-year-old attacker connected with fellow homegrown substitute Kristian Fletcher late on to rescue a useful point from Nashville SC’s visit to Audi Field – and it almost didn’t happen at all due to an ankle injury.

“He was struggling yesterday,” head coach Wayne Rooney said of TKDP after the 1-1 draw. “He came to see me and said if I needed him for 10 to 15 minutes, then he will give what he can. And he gets his reward for having that character and the reward for being brave and doing everything he can to help the team.”

Chris Brady: It hasn’t been an easy transition from backup to starter for Brady since the sale of Gaga Slonina to Chelsea. The Fire ‘keeper has made a few errors this season and Chicago’s spotty attacking production has raised the pressure on him and his defense. So credit is due to the homegrown for grinding and persevering, and on Saturday afternoon he made two saves and patrolled his penalty box well to blank STL for his second clean sheet of the year.

Juan Mosquera: Portland’s smooth right back scribbled his name onto the scoresheet yet again in the Timbers’ big 3-1 Cascadia Cup win over Vancouver, ranging far forward to get involved in a move deep in the Whitecaps’ box and notch his third assist of the season. He completed 95% of his passes overall.