National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 2?

Young Players - 3.6.23

Young talent continued to assert itself on Matchday 2, with several U-22 players contributing mightily to their teams’ performances across MLS. We’ll start up north in crisp Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The Revs are 2-0 for the first time ever – EVER! They’ve been in MLS from the jump! 1996! – and their skillful young Colombian is a big reason why.

After a solid outing vs. Charlotte on opening day, Borrero bagged a goal and an assist in New England’s 3-0 win over Houston, grabbing the spotlight with some mixtape-worthy dribbling as well as intelligent reading of the game. Our sincere condolences go out to Dynamo fullback Griff Dorsey, a YPPOTW alumnus who had the misfortune to get corkscrewed into the Gillette Stadium turf as Borrero sliced and diced to set the stage for Brandon Bye to net the Revs’ third of the night.

The kid is nominally a winger. He flashed some very useful versatility and understanding up top as Bruce Arena trotted his side out in a 4-4-2 diamond for their home opener, however. Here’s Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle’s breakdown:

Notice Borrero, who’s nominally a second forward in this set-up, scoring what is essentially a winger’s goal. His ability to shift between playing in the pocket under the 9 to working off the shoulder of the weak-side fullback is going to be key to making this approach work.

Speaking of which, the Crew got the Doyle spotlight treatment in his beloved weekend roundup, with new coach Wilfried Nancy’s blueprint taking shape in their 2-0 home-opening win over D.C. United. The Frenchman’s philosophy is one of the more complex, and fascinating, tactical models in the league, and in many ways lives and dies by the two central midfielders at its heart.

In Columbus, that’s Morris and Darlington Nagbe, a partnership we expect to have a keen eye on throughout 2023. With Artur off to Houston, the younger half finally seems to have a clear runway to becoming an everyday starter this year, which started with a senior international debut for the US men’s national team vs. Serbia in January camp.

Morris’ relentless engine has been his calling card to date, though it’s noteworthy that during preseason Nancy spoke of teaching Morris to run LESS, which hints at a cultivation of his perception within a positional-play system.

Saturday’s stat line was a promising data point: 58 touches, 89% pass completion with one key pass and three accurate long balls, a game-high eight successful tackles and half a dozen other defensive actions. Oh, and one big team W.

As concerning as their opening-day performance was in Nashville, plenty of MLS pundits remain reluctant to sell their NYCFC stock, and the story behind their back-line debutant on Matchday 2 in Chicago points to a notable factor in why. Ilenic, 18, is an attack-minded fullback plucked out of the Slovenian league, NK Domžale to be exact, after some distinguished displays for Slovenia’s youth national teams.

When it comes to international recruitment, City Football Group’s global scouting network amounts to a cheat code for the Pigeons. It’s not just that they can spot a prospect like that, but that they also have the resources and commitment to plunk down a transfer fee reportedly in the $1 million range to secure his services. It can only help that his countryman and fellow fullback Zan Kolmanic has settled well at Austin FC.

Ilenic’s first MLS outing was made possible by an injury to Tayvon Gray, and the newcomer looked the part in the 1-1 draw with the Fire, passing at a 74% clip, going 3/5 on dribbles, notching five recoveries and winning most of his individual duels.

Coach Nick Cushing seems to see Ilenic as more of a finished product going forward than in defensive terms, so Gray may step right back into the XI as City host Inter Miami in their home opener on Sunday. But we’re intrigued to see what he brings to the NYC attack with his jaunts down the touchline.

A number of policy shifts and wider trends have pushed the league’s pivot towards youth, and as FCD’s club-record transfer signing and Young Designated Player, Velasco is kind of a walking billboard for all that. Carrying a DP tag of any sort in MLS nonetheless requires productivity in the here and now, and the 20-year-old winger brought exactly that in the 3-1 win over the LA Galaxy.

Dallas’ Velasco-Jesús Ferreira-Paul Arriola attacking trident asks a variety of tough questions of opposing back lines. Velasco showed one by arriving at the back post to slot home an Arriola center for the equalizer after LA’s early opening, with FCD reaping the benefits of playing direct instead of methodical just before halftime.

The Argentine played provider on the game-winner, lifting a deep, searching cross that Arriola headed to Ferreira to finish, again showing that front three’s understanding. Velasco also got stuck into several tackles and won a bevy of duels as he showed his commitment on the other side of the ball.

Here’s a developing story down in central Texas: Wolff, at just 18 years of age and 11 career MLS starts coming into the season, seems to have – for now at least – displaced veteran Alex Ring in ATX’s midfield pivot next to former YPPOTW starboy Dani Pereira, starting both of their first two matches and holding his own.

That said, Ring is still on the field, deputizing at center back in the tight 1-0 win over CF Montréal over the weekend with the Verde & Black short on dependable options in that area. And we might see that look for a little while longer, considering that Austin tightened things up significantly after that wild comeback loss to St. Louis on Matchday 1.

After suffering a bit under the heat of the CITY SC high press, Wolff cleaned up his distribution, completing 31/36 passes, and fighting the engine-room battles, earning an early yellow card while also drawing six fouls and logging more than a dozen defensive actions.

It’s never easy being the coach’s son, but he’s earning his spot, and we’re curious to see how he handles the rigors of Concacaf Champions League sandwiched around trips to Real Salt Lake and Houston.

Honorable mentions

Cade Cowell: On the stats sheet, the San Jose Earthquakes’ homegrown winger wasn’t a dominant force in the Quakes’ comeback win over Vancouver, Luchi Gonzalez’s first win in charge. But we were impressed with his speed of thought and work off the ball, particularly on Carlos Akapo’s match-winner, a LuchiBall team goal if there ever was one. Just watch Cowell’s incisive role in the move:

John Tolkin: Another USMNT January camper we’re expecting big things from in 2023, the New York Red Bulls left back did his part in their 0-0 draw with Nashville, creating two chances, completing 31/40 passes and throwing himself into the rigors of the taurine high press with his usual gusto.

Andres Jasson: Deployed on the left side of NYCFC’s front four at Soldier Field, the homegrown was effective in moments, clanging an early effort off the post and playing one key pass. While an incomplete outing – Jasson turned the ball over several times – it gave us reason to keep an eye on the Pigeons youngster in the coming weeks.