National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 3?

Young Players - Matchday 3

Kids weren’t just an MLS storyline over Matchday 3. They were the storyline.

Yes, we’re probably a bit biased, but it’s not really that hot of a take, is it? YPPOTW-eligible players scored or created a third of the 27 goals scored across the weekend along with several man-of-the-match-worthy performances on both sides of the ball.

We’re going to start in Charlotte, where a Five Stripes young’un ran rampant in a Southern rivalry stomping.

Here’s a mild surprise: Not even Dénis Bouanga going nuclear in LAFC’s rout of New England could prevent Wiley from earning Player of the Matchday presented by Continental Tire honors. The 18-year-old lefty scored two of ATLUTD’s goals and assisted on a third as they shredded Charlotte FC into crispy thin strips in transition en route to an emphatic 3-0 win that was locked up before the halftime whistle.

In the process, Wiley became the fourth-youngest player in league history with at least three goal contributions in a single half, behind only Alphonso Davies (twice) and OG MLS starlet Bobby Convey. For the record, he also chipped in 11 defensive actions to boot.

Could Wiley be the unexpected key to getting the Five Stripes humming again? With so many of his attacking colleagues the types to want the ball at their feet, the homegrown’s timing, pace and motor off the ball were the difference-maker on Saturday – and we can expect Gonzalo Pineda to lean into that going forward.

Here’s another 18-year-old doing MOTM things in a big away win, ATX’s 2-1 defeat of Real Salt Lake – a result that, let’s be honest, was very, very timely indeed for a side that had just been humiliated in their first-ever Concacaf Champions League match in midweek, by massive Haitian underdogs Violette AC.

In a match where all three goals were scored in the first 33 minutes, Wolff galloped forward from deep in central midfield to conjure up the winner, slashing open RSL with the ball at his feet before uncorking a superbly-struck finish from long range for his first career MLS goal.

The youngster had already stamped his mark on the proceedings by notching an assist on Jon Gallagher’s opener, and he also put in work on the defensive side, winning 9/16 duels, tabbing three tackles, seven recoveries and five interceptions, and drawing two fouls.

Now he just has to do it all over again, and hope enough of his teammates do the same, if ATX are to overturn their steep aggregate deficit in Tuesday’s CCL Round-of-16 second leg at Q2 Stadium.

Incredibly, thanks to his good work in January camp, the Galaxy homegrown logged his first two US men’s national team caps before he saw his first two MLS appearances. Some might frame that factoid as a subtle nudge of Gs coach Greg Vanney by the USMNT’s coaching staff; others would just consider it the universe speaking to Neal and his club.

Regardless, the 19-year-old center back got his first MLS start on Saturday and excelled under duress, helping LA hang on to a clean sheet away from home despite heavy pressure by Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. Neal completed 97% of his 60 passes and made five blocks, five recoveries and three clearances in the 0-0 draw.

“We've always been super high on his talent and his ability,” Vanney said afterwards. “Tonight he showed it a little bit different side, which is just the grittiness defensively and making some plays in the box by doing some of that side … his game reading and winning some duels and making some great defensive plays.”

Let’s hope we see more of Neal when LA host Vancouver on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The Croatian youth international, an intriguing U22 Initiative signing over the winter, is shifting through the gears as he settles in and finds his feet in Los Angeles. After a couple of promising substitute appearances, he earned his first start on Sunday, and contributed plenty to LAFC’s 4-0 shellacking of the Revolution.

Biuk, 20, capped the BMO Stadium rout with his first MLS goal, intelligently popping up at the back post to finish a highly inviting low cross from Bouanga. He was also active both on and off the ball, playing two key passes, going 2/3 on dribbles, and making six recoveries and three interceptions.

Much has been made of the Black & Gold’s lack of a conventional No. 9 in the wake of Chicho Arango’s departure for Liga MX’s Pachuca. Yet with Biuk, Bouanga, Carlos Vela and Mahala Opoku all looking capable of dynamic, fluid interchange across the front three, it’s quite possible they can just reinterpret how the traditional trident of a 4-3-3 system interacts in attack.

And with LAFC hosting Alajuelense in CCL on Wednesday before a big, big national-television visit to Seattle on Saturday afternoon (4 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FOX), we expect to see more of Biuk’s contributions to that this week.

TFC let another lead slip away in Saturday’s chilly 1-1 draw with Columbus at BMO Field, yet there was promise and possibility in the first goal of the season from their 20-year-old homegrown forward.

First off and most obviously, there’s that nasty skill check to humble a veteran, international-level defender like Milos Degenek in order to make the yard of space needed to slot home his clinical near-post finish:

Break down the full sequence, though, as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle did in his weekend review column, and you see the collective movement and understanding involved, capped by Kerr’s cleverness in riding the line, then drifting into just the right channel to invite just the right ball from Jonathan Osorio. That’s forward play beyond his years, getting the starting nod with Adama Diomande and Ayo Akinola out injured.

Kerr was one of several Reds kids who got a baptism by fire in the top flight last season, and the team’s struggles reflected it. Now perhaps those lessons can be put to good use, especially with so many elite chance creators around him to provide service and guidance.

Honorable Mentions

Miguel Perez: The dream rolls on for St. Louis City SC’s 17-year-old. Bradley Carnell gave the homegrown midfielder his first start in their visit to Portland, a 2-1 comeback win that has the expansion newbies topping the league table. Perez fought the battles in the engine room, going 24/31 (77%) with his passing and stacking up more than a dozen defensive actions while also hitting another milestone in his MLS career: His first yellow card.

John Tolkin: Frigid temperatures and a snowy pitch made Minnesota United vs. New York Red Bulls a less-than-optimal occasion for soccer activities at Allianz Field. RBNY’s offbeat, all-action left back looked as up for the quirkiness of the occasion as anyone, winning 87.5% of his 10 duels, going 3/3 on tackles and drawing two fouls in addition to earning his first assist of 2023, serving up the corner-kick delivery headed home by Andrés Reyes to take a point home to Harrison, New Jersey.

Aidan Morris: The Columbus Crew took a punch in Toronto, then rallied and rebounded to dig out a road result as Wilfried Nancy made some useful tactical adjustments, with Morris and his 92 touches at the heart of things again. With 55/58 pass completion, two key passes and an assist on Jimmy Medranda’s leveler, the homegrown was nearly flawless on the ball and tenacious in his tackling and harrying on the defensive side, earning a spot on the MLS Team of the Matchday presented by Audi bench.