National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 5?

Young Players 3.27.23

Matches during an international window? In modern MLS, that’s the de-facto equivalent of a Bat-Signal for young talent to step up.

Kids were called upon across the league on Matchday 5, some of them earning opportunities due to absent teammates, others simply continuing to grind like they already had been. This week’s rundown encompasses both kinds.

We’ll start at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., where the fog-shrouded clash between D.C. United and the New England Revolution featured a whopping six YPPOTW-eligible players across the two starting lineups. One, in particular, grabbed the headlines...

The Revs’ homegrown is still a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday and has started all five of their matches this season; Saturday’s 2-1 comeback win in the U.S. capital showed why. Logging 71 touches, 84% passing completion with one key pass, six recoveries and three tackles in central midfield, Buck capped it all off with the game-winning goal, a deflected strike on a half-clearance of a late corner kick.

“Noel, I thought played a complete game,” said Revs coach Bruce Arena, who took care to note that he started three teenage homegrowns in his midfield. “For the first 60 minutes he was probably our best player. … Noel has played in every game to date, and I think he's probably started three or four of the games … so he's earned our trust long ago.”

As Buck himself noted to postgame, Arena is no soft touch when it comes to making young’uns earn their minutes.

“With Bruce, he’s always going to have high expectations,” Buck said. “He’s not going to put on a player just to play him. In a way it kind of sucks sometimes, but that’s how it has to be. You have to work really hard to get on the field.”

Also, a quick mea culpa from the YPPOTW supreme committee. In listing Buck as one of our candidates for breakout homegrown player of 2023, we suggested he might be ready to move across the Atlantic after he turns 18. But Buck himself set the record straight: He already has a United Kingdom passport and thus swings a transfer basically whenever someone in Britain meets the Revolution’s expectations for a fee – a number which might just be growing steadily.

Even with Xherdan Shaqiri injured and four other players unavailable, the Fire are no longer winless, and they have their 19-year-old homegrown playmaker to thank.

Guti served up two assists in Chicago's 3-2 win at Inter Miami, including Kei Kamara's dramatic late winner, a play made possible by the teenager’s driving solo run past several defenders:

Gutiérrez also drew three fouls, made five recoveries, went 2/2 on dribbles and won 64% of his 15 duels. It added up to a well-deserved spot on the bench of the Team of the Matchday presented by Audi.

The Crew greeted Atlanta United with whuppin’ stick in hand at Field on Saturday, putting six past the Five Stripes with a varied combination of slick buildups and ruthless pressing with quick transitions.

You’d hardly have guessed that Columbus were missing almost as much starpower as ATLUTD. And that’s a huge compliment to the likes of Russell-Rowe, the Canadian striker who bagged a goal – the first of his MLS career – and an assist to render moot the absences of Cucho Hernández and Lucas Zelarayán.

JRR has been a walking poster child for MLS NEXT Pro on account of the way he dominated that league last year in order to earn his chance with the first team, with Columbus using that player-development lever as well as anyone in its first year of existence.

Add in the Crew’s quiet overhaul of their academy system and now the arrival of new head coach Wilfried Nancy, who proved his #PlayYourKids bonafides at CF Montréal, and you have the makings of a youth revolution in central Ohio. Saturday was a tantalizing glimpse of what that could mean.

Readers may be forgiven for not giving full attention to the Matchday 5 nightcap out at PayPal Park, where TFC and the San Jose Earthquakes tussled to a scoreless stalemate. That should not obscure the outstanding display from JMR, who manned the right back role to perfection as he made his first appearance of the season with Richie Laryea away on international duty with Canada.

Marshall-Rutty completed 93% of his 56 passes, made a game-high six tackles, won 75% of his 24 duels and drew two fouls, limiting the impact of his fellow wunderkind Cade Cowell and contributing to buildups and attacks as well.

“I’m happy for Jahkeele,” said Reds coach Bob Bradley. “His mentality every day has been very good. I think his way of training every day, the way he comes in, he’s doing more in the gym. I think his concentration from the beginning of training until the end of training has gone up. So all the things that we spoke about at the end of last year, even though he had not gotten an opportunity until tonight, we told him over and over that we have seen a lot of these things going in a good direction. It’s good to see him get on the field and play well.”

It was particularly promising considering Bradley and the Reds staff are training JMR as a fullback to add different facets of versatility to his winger/wingback’s skillset. After the 0-0 draw, the 18-year-old noted he can look up to fellow Canadians like Laryea, Alphonso Davies Tajon Buchanan who’ve made similar shifts, and that is indeed the caliber of company JMR could soon be in.

FCC’s hard-fought 1-0 win at Nashville – a rivalry dating back to their USL days that’s quietly building some edge lately, by the way – included an MLS debutant in the heart of their central midfield, thanks to the international absences of Junior Moreno and Marco Angulo (and an injured Yuya Kubo).

You’d hardly have known the Knifey Lions were four deep in such a critical area. Pinto handled that difficult task with aplomb, completing all 22 of his passes and covering lots of ground to limit the influence of reigning league MVP Hany Mukhtar, his night only ended by an outbreak of muscle cramps that forced a 64th-minute substitution.

“We thought about ways we could have experience on the field, but it's 'let's give the kid a chance. Let's go like-for-like for Moreno\] and see how this plays off,” [said Cincy coach Pat Noonan postgame. “And he looked like an experienced player on the field, connecting the right passes, not trying to do too much. He didn't seem overwhelmed by the moment, so it's just a good sign early on where we can say, 'OK, we know Malik can handle this.'”

Pinto hails from soccer royalty, by the way: His father Hassan was a standout at the University of North Carolina back in the day, his sister Brianna plays for NWSL side North Carolina Courage and their older brother Hassan Jr. also played at a high level. The YPPOTW scouting department will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on Malik’s progress in the coming months.

Honorable Mentions

Aidan Morris: Another week, another Morris masterclass in the Crew engine room. This time out, the 21-year-old added his first career goal atop his usual head-turning rundown of precise passing and tenacious defensive work.

Esmir Bajraktarevic: After watching him up close at Audi Field, we’re just about ready to officially bless the Revs’ 18-year-old midfielder with those three powerful words: ‘that boy nice.’ In 62 minutes vs. D.C, Esmir got stuck in, played two key passes and repeatedly took on defenders with the ball at his feet. They didn’t all come off, but his talent was evident.

Brooklyn Raines: This kid has had some buzz around him for several years, and he showed why in his first MLS start, the Houston Dynamo’s 1-0 win over New York City FC. Working alongside veterans Artur and Héctor Herrera, the 18-year-old completed 17/21 passes (81%), went 2/2 on dribbles and waded into 10 duels. He might’ve done better with his shot on a good look at goal following an NYCFC turnover in the first half, but all in all, Raines’ night bodes well for Houston’s future.

Jalen Neal: With the 0-0 road draw at Portland, the LA Galaxy’s homegrown defensive prodigy started his third straight match and again showed he belongs at this level. Neal completed 93% of his 76 passes and made five clearances, five recoveries and two interceptions, looking unflustered in the Providence Park crucible. There are pressing problems for Greg Vanney and the Gs to solve, but he’s not one of them.