National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 4?

Young Players 3.20.23

Lots of potential jumping-off points for this week’s edition, but one particular terminus, shall we say, stands out:

How about them Five Stripes, y’all?

Even in a city that “runs on stunting,” to borrow a memorable phrase from the eponymous television series, Atlanta United got Dirty South hearts all aflutter with Saturday’s 5-1 thumping of Portland. It felt like old times at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Thiago Almada & Co. balled out of control, slicing and dicing the undermanned Timbers.

While the Argentine World Cup winner is one of the youngest players ever to look this dominant in MLS, it bears repeating that he’s actually a few months too old to feature in this series, thanks to the 22nd birthday he’ll be celebrating next month. It also should be emphasized that even with a whole host of 21-year-olds like him playing prominent roles across the league, we’re not short on eligible candidates, with upwards of a dozen Under-22ers considered for our Matchday 4 rundown.

And for the second week in a row, one of Almada’s attacking accomplices was head and shoulders ahead of the rest, so we’re starting in the 470.

The 18-year-old got things started for ATL with a classic lung-bursting transition run to slot home the opening goal at MBS, showing both pace and poise as he raced onto Almada’s inviting ball and stroked a first-time finish past Aljaz Ivacic:

For us it was further proof that Wiley’s willing legs are just as important to the Five Stripes’ fluidity as Almada’s vision and technique or Giorgos Giakoumakis’ No. 9 toolkit. The kid is eager to provide the cardio output that makes his teammates look so clever, and the fact manager Gonzalo Pineda can also bring on a comparably dangerous but markedly different type of winger in Derrick Etienne Jr. is brutal for opposing defenders.

All that said, the delicate dime Wiley dropped onto Giakoumakis’ head for Atlanta’s third might be just as gorgeous – and considering he’s widely projected to have the highest long-term ceiling as a fullback, perhaps even more exciting for scouts overseas:

Just like Almada bloomed into a perennial YPPOTW contender last year, we expect to be seeing plenty more of Wiley in these pages in the coming months.

FCD and Sporting KC played out a wild one down in Frisco, centering on the surreal sequence of penalty kicks conceded, saved, then saved again on the retake by goalkeeper Maarten Paes. Velasco was just as key to Dallas’ comeback win, though.

The Argentine Young Designated Player passed at an 84% clip including one key pass, and his equalizer early in the second half was not only a pivotal turning point in the match but also a lovely, intuitive combination with Sebastian Lletget that capped a flowing 15-pass buildup:

Week after week, Velasco is putting in the work in both directions, showing his superb technique and decision-making on the fly, and the chemistry he’s crafting with his attacking colleagues bodes well for FCD’s future.

After an 0W-3L-0D start that had nerves twitching along the Piedmont, The Crown escaped the ranks of MLS’s winless with an impressive road win over an Orlando City side nursing a Concacaf Champions League hangover. Vargas bagged the game-winning goal, the Colombian winger’s first since arriving in Charlotte last May.

Many a pretty goal has been struck from that danger zone along the left channel where right-footers like to cut inside and sniff out pockets of space to test goalkeepers. Take a look at Velasco’s goal above, then watch Vargas’ strike at Exploria Stadium – it’s a great example of how challenging this can be for ‘keepers who have to guard that back corner without getting caught out at their near post:

It’s a different look from what Kamil Jozwiak brought to those areas in CLT’s first three games and we expect to see more of it: in addition to his goal, Vargas also played two key passes, went 3/5 on dribbles and made six recoveries.

Like many other MLS observers, the YPPOTW politburo has been relatively underwhelmed by NYCFC’s use of their twinkle-toed Brazilian dribbler as a No. 9. He’s looked out of sorts in the role for long periods and generally hasn’t matched the end product he’d displayed while working out wide or in the hole. Most concerningly, it seemed to have the knock-on effect of lowering the ceiling for the entire XI.

Those doubts won’t necessarily vanish via a good week or two. But the Pigeons’ 3-2 win over D.C. United at Yankee Stadium hinted at useful new facets to the setup. Magno continues to roam, albeit with more purpose and an improved sense of timing – and a striker’s sense of the ‘don’t just do something, stand there’ moments.

Note how the Brazilian stops and starts there, first to exploit Derrick Williams’ unsuccessful attempt to spring an offside trap, then making haste to get behind the D.C. center back and stay there for a close-range one-time finish that’s not as easy as it looks.

“We talked about him not being a natural No. 9,” noted match commentator Calen Carr, “well, he gets to the right spot there, and gets rewarded with the finish.”

The free-spirited, leather-lunged left back has become so consistent, and such a perennial contender for YPPOTW honors, that we are contemplating replacing his written blurb with something more visceral and varied. Maybe some high-resolution photos of his latest hairstyle, or one of his social-media posts, like that Instagram pic with Bill Nye the Science Guy the other day.

OK, fine, we’ll write this one up for at least one more week. Tolkin notched his second assist of the season over the weekend, this one a half-volleyed, game-winning back post delivery to showpiece winter signing Dante Vanzeir as RBNY staged a dramatic comeback over Columbus in Harrison. He also got stuck into a bunch of duels and tackles as he buzzed around at his usual caffeinated work rate.

Tolkin grows more and more fundamental to his side with every passing week, it seems: He logged 70 touches in this match, which is pretty absurd for a 20-year-old fullback on a high-pressing team.

Honorable mentions

Aidan Morris: The Crew have ample reason to rue letting a potential road W slip away in New Jersey. Yet the sheer volume and output of their young central midfielder still deserves praise. Morris went 62/63 passing (98%), 4/5 on dribbles, made three tackles and 12 recoveries while winning 13 of his 22 duels and drawing three fouls.

Tega Ikoba: Amid the current gloom in Portland, a new sapling may be taking root. Making just his third career MLS appearance, Ikoba scored his first career MLS goal to provide PTFC with some consolation in Atlanta, making the most of his 14 minutes on the pitch. The kid grew up in Iowa and Alabama and traveled a unique road to this point. And perhaps he holds the potential to become a landmark homegrown for a Timbers youth program in need of a case study for success.

Obed Vargas: A stat line like 11/13 passing and 3/5 duels won in 27 minutes off the bench during a scoreless draw might not get your pulse racing, but Saturday’s cameo was a sweet, hard-earned reward for Seattle’s 17-year-old center mid. After his scintillating – and seemingly out-of-left-field – engine-room displays in the Sounders’ run to the CCL title last year, the Alaskan’s 2022 was cut abruptly short by a season-ending back injury in June. During preseason his recovery got complicated by a quadriceps issue, so returning to game action just in time to earn a US U-20 national team call-up is a huge W for Vargas.