National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Matchday 6?

Young Players 4.3.23

“Setting them up to succeed.”

It’s a concept coaches often allude to, the idea of providing players a sturdy platform upon which they can perform at or near their best. Not so long ago in MLS, it was considered almost an added responsibility for coaches who fielded young players to make the kids’ duties as straightforward as possible, mindful of the perceived limitations young’uns brought to the table in this league.

Today, that’s evolving, as we saw throughout Matchday 6. Whether by choice or the absence of it, many young players are being thrown into the fire, trusted with complex or difficult taskings despite their relative lack of experience. Sometimes that turns ugly in a hurry, but when it works, it’s beautiful to behold.

This week’s edition has a bit of both.

From his first career MLS goal a week ago during a 6-1 win over Atlanta United to a brace in a man-of-the-match outing in a 4-0 rout of Real Salt Lake, the Crew’s homegrown central midfielder just keeps leveling up. An easy pick for MLS Team of the Matchday presented by Audi, Morris is adding new facets to an increasingly well-rounded toolkit and has flashed a profound hunger to keep improving.

We wrote about Morris in-depth on Saturday night. So we won’t go too long here, other than to point to a revealing quote from Columbus coach Wilfried Nancy in that piece, one that suggests Nancy sees enormous upside in the 21-year-old US international:

“What I like about Aidan is that he was not happy about his game. And this is Aidan. He likes to all the time challenge himself,” said the Frenchman. “This is the, I don’t know if I’m going to say it well in English, but the learning curve, and he’s spot-on on it, because he’s processing a lot of things. But again, this is Aidan … the fact that he scored, I’m going to be more demanding with him.”

It was yet another night of frustration for the home side at Dignity Health Sports Park, where the Seattle Sounders snatched a road W from under the Galaxy’s noses, albeit with a heaping helping of good fortune involved. Neal’s work at the heart of the LA backline offered some consolation from the 2-1 setback, at least.

The 19-year-old center back completed 61/68 passes (90%) and made seven recoveries, two interceptions and three clearances. He was also dominant in the air, without committing a single foul.

He capped it off with his first career MLS goal, a poacher’s finish that helped spark a late rally from 2-0 down that very easily could – Gs would surely prefer to say ‘should’ – have rescued at least a point as the hosts put the Sounders under sustained late pressure.

Have NYCFC called time on the ‘Talles Magno as a No. 9’ gambit? While it’s probably a bit early for such a declaration, we noted with interest that Nick Cushing gave Gabe Segal his first-ever MLS start and deployed the silky Brazilian on the left flank against New England, a role in which he’s often looked more comfortable and impactful since joining the Pigeons in 2021.

On a day when his usually-proactive team had to scratch and claw for a foothold on the Gillette Stadium turf, Talles completed 85% of his passes, including one key pass, and menaced on the dribble. He then popped up in a crowded six-yard box to nod home the equalizing goal, his second strike of the season, off a Gabriel Pereira corner kick to grab a share of the points and cancel out Carles Gil's opener (1-1 draw).

MLS Season Pass commentator Callum Williams called NYCFC “the team without a center forward” during the broadcast, which may be true, and points to the biggest question swirling around the Pigeons' attack. If they can find a way to get Talles Magno to produce regularly, though, it may become a much less pressing matter.

Amid a mediocre overall start to 2023 for the capital club, Greene’s progress has been a bright spot for Wayne Rooney & Co.

After making his MLS debut off the bench vs. NYCFC last month, the 20-year-old homegrown has now started D.C.’s past two matches at left back, providing composed, unfussy defensive work that balances the attacking mindset offered by Ruan when the Brazilian works the opposite flank.

Green notched nine recoveries, seven clearances and one block and won three of his five duels as well as two of three tackles in Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Chicago Fire FC, United’s first clean sheet of the season.

“He [Rooney] has been always been very willing to put them in regardless of age. If they're playing well and deserve to play, they play,” noted D.C. assistant coach Peter Shuttleworth last week of Rooney’s approach to young players like Greene.

“He's a good one-v-one defender, he's got good athletic abilities.”

The North Texans got stung by Portland’s last-ditch equalizer and should feel rueful about sharing the points (1-1 draw) in a home game where they nearly tripled their visitors’ expected goals number. That said, their Argentine winger continues to trouble opposing back lines both on and off the ball.

Velasco played one key pass, directed two shots on goal, went 6/7 on dribbles and contributed five recoveries while winning most of his 13 duels. Hindsight’s 20/20, but we suspect coach Nico Estevez might be thinking twice about the decision to sub out Velasco in the late going in order to switch to three at the back, which seemed to leave FCD a bit passive in the leadup to Franck Boli’s dramatic late tally.

Dallas’ Young Designated Player is quietly doing interesting, entertaining and impactful attacking work from week to week. YPPOTW hardcores should add some of their upcoming matches to their Apple TV watchlist to take a longer look at Velasco.

Honorable Mentions

Kerwin Vargas: Charlotte FC’s Colombian winger was impactful yet again on Matchday 6, covering ground, connecting passes well and dropping a lovely cross into Kamil Józwiak’s path for the equalizer that clawed back a hard-earned point from their trip to Toronto FC, erasing a 2-0 deficit.

Caleb Wiley: As we discussed in a previous edition of YPPOTW, Wiley is projected as more of a left back than a left winger in the long term. So as thrilling as his attacking contributions were in the season’s opening weeks, let’s offer the fleet-footed teenager some dap for handling the grunt work required to salt away that 1-0 grinder of a win for Atlanta United over the New York Red Bulls at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Gavin Beavers: It’s rare to give a nod to a goalkeeper who just got shellacked for four goals. Still, we think RSL’s Beavers deserves some credit for how he embraced the brutal task of making his MLS debut in Saturday’s match at Columbus. Beavers is just 17 years old! That makes him the third-youngest ‘keeper in league history, and the bravery he showed in the 4-0 defeat should be lauded. By the way: afterwards coach Pablo Mastroeni effectively confirmed that RSL’s goalkeeping competition is open, so the teen seems to have the chance to earn further minutes.