National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Week 24?

A record-smashing 57 (FIFTY-SEVEN!) goals were scored across 13 MLS matches on Saturday, many of them scored in injury time and various other dramatic circumstances, making for one of the league’s wildest days in recent memory.

And that wasn’t even all of Week 24, which technically began with Tuesday night’s twin bill and also included four Wednesday games. That’s a lot of evaluation fodder for the YPPOTW junta.

After sifting through the video and soliciting perspective from you, our dear readers, this is our rundown of the week’s top performances from under-23 players.

We’ll start in KC, where a painful season seemed to hit rock-bottom with U.S. Open Cup heartbreak and a maddening home loss to Austin FC at the end of July. But just a couple days after we wrote off their long-shot Audi MLS Cup Playoffs chances, their new arrival from Hapoel Jerusalem sent fresh hope flooding through Sporting veins with a match-winning performance to ambush the LA Galaxy.

Agada bagged a brace in the wild 4-2 win at Children's Mercy Park, just his second MLS start. And while his first goal had a whiff of good fortune about it via the officiating crew’s Video Review decision that the ball had fully crossed the goal line despite Jonathan Bond’s impressive efforts, the Nigerian’s second was an emphatic back-post finish of a Daniel Salloi cross after an intelligent run to cut out his marker, Sega Coulibaly:

A very important finish it was, too, because SKC’s 2022 jitters returned at the end – and they also failed to convert a penalty kick in this one – to allow the Galaxy to sneak back into contention near the end despite their poor overall performance.

Just like Peter Vermes wants from his No. 9s, Agada showed energy and bite on the defensive side, too, and was clean with his passing, going 11/12 in that department. Take a look at the buildup to Erik Thommy’s opening goal to see just how useful the 22-year-old was with his back-to-goal and link-up play as well.

Don't look now, but the Windy City side are 4W-0L-1D in their last five matches, a blazing run of form that’s powered them above the Eastern Conference playoff line – and while names like Shaqiri and Slonina tend to hog the headlines, their 22-year-old Argentine center mid has quietly been a pivotal cog in that resurgence.

Navarro’s work in the engine room tends to be a weather vane for the Fire’s prospects of victory and he battled ferociously on both sides of the ball in Saturday’s 3-2 win at Charlotte FC, an impressive road result considering the expansionists have won eight times at Bank of America Stadium this season.

He made several tackles, went 9/16 on duels, notched four interceptions, co-led his team with six tackles, stacked up a startling 14 recoveries and went 25/34 (74%) with his passing as Chicago showed admirable poise to climb out of the early hole Yordy Reyna’s first-minute goal threw them into. Oh yeah, and Navarro capped his afternoon by tucking this clinical half-volleyed finish inside the far post with his weaker left foot:

Cincy’s Argentine winger was an absolute force in the 3-1 home win over East-leading Philadelphia, their first-ever defeat of the Union – former employers, it should be said, of head coach Pat Noonan and general manager Chris Albright, which surely made this a particularly sweet three points for those two.

It was a result Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle dubbed both the best performance and best result in FCC’s history, and Barreal helped get it started with a pinpoint near-post delivery from the left flank on Brandon Vazquez’s opening goal, one of his three key passes on the day.

Later the 22-year-old combined with the exhilarating Lucho Acosta to score his fourth goal of the season, making a savvy slalom into the center of the park and leaving a trail of Philly defenders in his wake:

Overall Barreal went 33/42 (79%) with his passing, was accurate with 4/7 long balls, contributed 10 defensive actions and won three of his five duels.

Speaking frankly, Miami are a telenovela of a club and perhaps always will be, given their location, culture, ownership and other circumstances – and that’s not inherently a bad thing! We simply say all this to urge you to wrench your eyes away for a moment from compelling stories like Gonzalo Higuain’s late-career fortunes, Phil Neville’s capacity for headline-generating soundbytes and other IMCF plot lines, and take note of what Duke is doing this season.

The 21-year-old is putting in important shifts in the heart of midfield for a playoff-chasing team, competing with older and more experienced teammates to earn his minutes and contributing significantly. Duke is doing the dirty work, and squeezing in some end product – and some sauce – as well.

The Herons did pretty well with their grueling cross-continental road trip from Florida to San Jose to Montréal this week, snatching a 1-0 win off the Earthquakes before batting back to take a 2-2 draw home from Quebec over the weekend. After coming off the bench to help salt away the first – only a tight offside call prevented him from bagging an assist there – Duke was key from the start against CFM on Saturday.

The Arizona native racked up 89 touches at Montréal, passing at 90% accuracy (including one key pass and connecting 4/5 long balls), going 3/4 on dribbles, winning eight of his 10 duels and drawing four fouls. The coup de grace, though, was the cheeky nutmeg of Joel Waterman to break clear into space before finding Ale Pozuelo for Miami’s equalizer:

The boys from the Rose City have ample reasons to feel disappointed at this week’s two home draws vs. West foes Nashville SC and FC Dallas, results that leave them clutching on to the conference’s final playoff slot just one point in front of rivals Seattle, who have a game in hand. Portland’s Colombian creator did his part, though, as he’s become one of their most important players.

Moreno scored the equalizer on Wednesday, his fifth of the season, latching onto a half-clearance and showing good technique to keep his volley low and on frame. He was also spotless with his distribution, going a perfect 43/43, including three chances created and six accurate long balls. He also went 4/5 on dribbles and tabbed nine defensive actions.

Moreno was almost as good against FCD, completing 79% of his passes, playing four key passes and going 3/5 on dribbles. We see reasons for concern as the Timbers continue to drop points at Providence Park, yet their 22-year-old attacking dynamo is one of those offering solutions down on the banks of the Willamette.

Honorable mentions

Thiago Almada: Atlanta United’s much-scrutinized showpiece playmaker did the business in the Five Stripes’ massive, massive 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders, making three key passes, connecting on 89% of his passes and posing danger on the dribble in addition to three tackles and other defensive contributions.

Benji Kikanovic: Sure, there was some quirkiness about the Earthquakes attacker’s goal vs. Austin FC. It nonetheless turned out to be a huge moment on the path to the ‘Quakes stealing a late away draw via Jeremy Ebobisse’s last-gasp header. Kikanovic has flipped some kind of switch this summer; he now has four goals and two assists in his last eight matches.

Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku: Cynics might contend it’s just a matter of time before Gareth Bale takes his spot in the LAFC XI. But the Black & Gold’s Ghanaian winger got onto the scoresheet yet again for the league leaders this week, assisting on Cristian Arango’s second goal in the 4-1 win at Real Salt Lake.

Jayden Nelson: Toronto FC’s breathless 4-3 win at Nashville was a big result for the Reds and their 19-year-old homegrown was influential in his 79 minutes on the GEODIS Park pitch. We’re intrigued with TFC’s decision to shift Nelson, who has mainly been a wide player in his fledgling pro career, centrally since the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne and his illustrious Italian colleagues; the kid seems to be adapting well to the job of covering ground and winning the engine-room battles alongside Michael Bradley.


Audi Goals Drive Progress

MLS Academies have been identified as one of the most important resources for building on-field talent in North America. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative, Audi has committed $1 million per season in an effort to advance academies league-wide, and to drive progress for the sport. For every goal scored in the regular season, Audi will contribute $500 into the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund to directly support each MLS Club Youth Academy.