National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Weeks 12 & 13?

The 2022 MLS season is rounding out its third month of existence, and with the June international break looming but not quite here yet, the reality of the grind has really hit home.

Much of the league managed a busy midweek that entailed three games in eight days or so. Another handful are staring at midweek Canadian Championship and US Open Cup fixtures. It’s a time where both match-winning quality at the top end of the roster and reliable depth at the bottom are called upon, and nowadays we usually have young players to talk about in both categories.

We’ll start in the former – with the most expensive arrival in MLS history, in fact.

That $16 million price tag at times seemed like a weighted belt on the Argentine as he settled in with the Five Stripes. Perhaps we can declare his introductory period just about over, though, as he walks into the MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi for the second time this month after bagging a goal and a particularly lovely game-tying assist at Nashville SC on Saturday.

Almada has now scored in back-to-back matches and his vision, movement and distribution are beginning to consistently resemble those of an elite MLS playmaker. Again, we’re urging you to feast your eyes on the timing, weight and texture of that 88th-minute lofted delivery to Brooks Lennon:

Gonzalo Pineda can take heart from his young side’s tenacity to dig out a point against the budding rivals who roared back to end their Open Cup run at the same venue earlier this month.

We don’t have enough space here for the complete story of VWFC’s ludicrously unfortunate week and the brutal circumstances that forced them to dig down into their academy just to field a goalkeeper at Charlotte FC on Sunday; read Tom Bogert’s rundown to catch up there as needed.

We’re focused on the bravery and composure of Anchor, a 17-year-old youth prospect who signed off on a dramatic fast-tracking in the teeth of the Caps’ dire shorthandedness – they’re currently missing a full XI’s worth of first-team players thanks to injuries, wear and tear and COVID-19 protocols – by inking an MLS NEXT Pro contract, an agreement for an MLS homegrown contract for next season and a short-term agreement to step straight into the lineup mere hours later.

To add to the intensity of the moment, CLTFC had another bumper crowd of some 30,000 fans roaring at him and a freshly-healed quadriceps issue led Vancouver to assign goal-kick duties to defender Florian Jungwirth to protect it. Anchor pushed through some early nerves to make five saves, helping his team go agonizingly close to a hard-earned road point only to be undone by an extremely quirky late game-winner from Daniel Rios.

Anchor appears to be a legit talent, but jumping into the fire like this was extremely difficult – and depending on test results and the like, he might have to do it again in Wednesday's CanChamp quarterfinal leg-one clash at Cavalry FC.

Anyone who’s ever witnessed, let alone experienced firsthand, an athlete’s return from a long-term injury has to salute the hard-won satisfaction Akinola tasted over the weekend, as the 22-year-old Canadian international scored his first MLS goal since tearing his ACL during last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup.

It was an effort both important and well-taken, a rifled finish that kept TFC in contention for what turned to be a gutsy 2-2 comeback draw vs. D.C. United on an unseasonably hot evening in the United States capital. He also played two key passes and completed 15/22 overall.

For perspective: Chris Armas was still in charge of the Reds the last time Akinola, who is valued enough to have earned a U22 Initiative re-signing deal over the winter as he rehabbed, found the net.

As difficult as the long, slow climb back to health and fitness surely was, he may now be able to dream just a bit about building some rhythm and forcing his way back into the Canada men's national team discourse before John Herdman names his final roster for Qatar.

From Under-10s all the way up to the international level, being the coach’s kid can be a mixed blessing, and that’s putting it kindly. Based on his two starts this week – the first two of his MLS career – it seems the younger of Josh Wolff’s two MLS homegrown sons is deserving of the minutes, though.

Owen is just 17, the first homegrown in ATX’s history, and might suddenly be one to watch for national audiences.

Working the right attacking flank, he passed at an 89% completion clip in the Verde's statement win at LAFC on Wednesday night, then dialed it up to 96% (23/24) and served up an impressive five key passes, some real gold-plated deliveries, in the wild 2-2 comeback draw against Orlando City on Sunday.

He also showed the energy and industry required, racking up plenty of defensive actions in both games.

Things are looking up in the Bayou City, where first-year boss Paul Nagamura is figuring out some important things about his squad and getting contributions from a range of faces, including their rookie Icelandic MLS SuperDraft capture.

Sunday’s stunning 3-0 thumping of the LA Galaxy in Carson might just be the high-water mark of their season so far. The 21-year-old chipped in significantly with his first MLS goal, an emphatic blast into the roof of the net preceded by a blur of stepovers that tormented Derrick Williams:

Ulfarsson also played a key pass and added some decent defensive work, though his main danger was in transition as he and the rest of La Naranja feasted on the hapless Galaxy.

Honorable mentions

Jose Cifuentes: The Ecuadorian continues to do a lot of unsung graft for LAFC in the middle of the park, and after a tough midweek home loss to Austin, he came off the bench to score in the opportunistic 2-0 road win at Columbus. “Cifu” posted one of the league’s highest goals-added numbers across the two games.

Cam Harper: The young New York Red Bulls winger looks to be on the rise, progressing even in a not-great week for his team. After notching his first MLS assist on May 14, Harper scored his first career MLS goal in the 3-3 draw with Chicago and should be in line for further opportunities come summer.

Bryce Duke: Check out the table in the tweet below, and see if you can pick out the young domestic homegrown who’s producing attacking danger on par with some of the league’s biggest (and best-paid) names. Duke notched his first assist of 2022 to help Inter Miami knock off the Red Bulls and build on their solid spring form.

Deiber Caicedo: As discussed above in regards to Max Anchor, there’s a luckless vibe around Vancouver thus far this season and they’re battling particularly strong headwinds at the moment. Amid that upheaval, their Colombian winger is quietly maturing into a reliable regular, putting in more balanced and diligent shifts on both sides of the ball.


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.