National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Weeks 17 & 18?

It was a busy double-game week across MLS, which means plenty of action, squad rotation and lots of young bucks contributing significantly.

How many is ‘lots’? Let’s just say ‘our preliminary list included more than two dozen contenders’ kind of ‘lots.’ It was extremely difficult to narrow down to the usual five honorees plus a handful of honorable mentions, perhaps the most difficult selection of the 2022 season so far.

Alas, that means no space for the likes of 16-year-old wunderkind Serge Ngoma, scorer of the scintillating super-sub solo strike that secured the Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls’ sensational comeback win over Atlanta United. Or Columbus Crew rookie central midfielder Sean Zawadzki, who was even better in his second and third career MLS starts than he was in his first, which earned a nod from us last week.

Even with Giorgio Chiellini approaching his LAFC debut and Gareth Bale on the way, it’s a young person’s league more than ever.

The swaggy SoCal Serb just keeps scoring. Joveljic needed a mere seven touches and 21 minutes to find the net off the bench – and nearly spark a stunning comeback from 3-0 down – in LA’s 3-2 midweek loss to Minnesota United FC.

Then on Monday manager Greg Vanney finally started him alongside Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in a 4-4-2 formation against CF Montréal, and he scored again as the Galaxy routed the admittedly fatigued Quebecois, who were on the back half of a long West Coast road trip, 4-0.

Joveljic assertively claimed the right to take a Gs penalty kick, then calmly tucked his take into the lower right corner and threw down an extended celebration sequence that suggested he and Chicha are hitting it off as nicely off the pitch as on it.

He’s now the Galaxy’s leading scorer across all competitions and is just one off of the pace Hernandez has set in league play, despite having played a quarter of the minutes his Mexican strike partner has.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed FCC’s record-breaking transfer acquisition was not long for southern Ohio, having reportedly filed a transfer request which suggested he’d failed to settle in Porkopolis. Now, however, the Brazilian is a man on fire, with four goals in the past week alone.

First he lit up Wednesday’s wild 4-4 draw with NYCFC, an absurdly, chaotically entertaining spectacle in which he scored a hat trick and had two more finishes waved off by officiating decisions. His work rate on both sides of the ball was impressive, his poaching instincts in the box exemplary, and it all earned him Player of the Week presented by Continental Tire honors for Week 17.

He continued his strong work in Sunday’s 2-2 draw at New England, where he was arguably the best player on the pitch at Gillette Stadium. Menacing the Revs' defense with six shots, Brenner scored again, created a big chance, passed at 80% and tabbed five defensive recoveries. If he is indeed this sort of 90-minute player for Cincy moving forward, it’s another laudable achievement for first-year head coach Pat Noonan.

The Quakes’ 22-year-old attacker picked a great time to open his 2022 account, bagging a brace against Chicago to deliver a 2-1 win that snaps San Jose’s six-week winless skid in league play. He also went 5/6 on dribbles, passed at an 87% clip and won most of his 16 duels to saunter into Week 18's Team of the Week presented by Audi.

Overall, Kikanovic looks mostly like an out-and-out striker to us. But this time out he did good work on the left side of a band of three – nominally, at least; he roamed intelligently at times, too – behind Jeremy Ebobisse, which bodes well for his chances of getting minutes even when Ebobisse is on the pitch.

His first goal was fox-in-the-box stuff to mop up after his teammates turned the Fire penalty box into a shooting gallery, and then he secured the three points with a lovely bit of transition work, racing into space behind the backline before a vicious cut past his defender and clinical finish with his weaker left foot.

We’re not saying they’re title contenders or anything, but the Quakes are slowly hauling themselves out of the deep hole they dug for themselves at the start of the season as Matias Almeyda’s stormy tenure petered out in unsightly fashion. If they can continue to get regular contributions from the likes of Kikanovic, they should be able to keep climbing.

The Timbers seem to be shaking off their late-spring struggles, taking eight of the last 12 points on offer in league play, and their 22-year-old Colombian winger has been a huge ingredient. He was man of the match in Wednesday’s 2-1 home win over Houston, scoring both of Portland’s goals in a ruggedly physical game to earn a spot in the Week 17 Team of the Week presented by Audi.

The first was a stylish top-corner conversion of a penalty kick, the second a one-time finish just 97 seconds later after some fluid PTFC pass-and-move combinations. Moreno also passed well, posed his usual threat on the dribble and did not shirk his defensive duties.

He wasn’t quite as explosive at Nashville SC on Sunday, but still completed 85% of his passes, including three key passes, over 90-plus minutes to help the Rose City crew steal a point from their inaugural visit to GEODIS Park. As proven as Portland’s veterans are, there’s just an X factor with Moreno, and we expect he’ll be a key to what kind of season this ends up being in Stumptown.

Things are not going ideally for the Pigeons since the departure of head coach Ronny Deila last month; with draws vs. Cincinnati and Atlanta this week, they’re 0W-2L-3D across league and US Open Cup play under interim boss Nick Cushing. Their 20-year-old Brazilian creator is certainly pulling his weight, though.

Talles Magno continued his impressive campaign with a goal and three assists across 130 minutes, setting up both of Taty Castellanos’ goals on Sunday and contributing 1g/1a in the dramatic midweek comeback from 3-0 down to salvage a 4-4 draw in Cincy. The kid also happens to be a blast to watch, especially when he gets on and around the ball in the final third.

As another well-known resident of the Five Boroughs once rapped, “numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard” – Jay-Z’s memorable bar from “Tom Ford” aptly sums up the productivity of NYCFC’s young attacking dynamo.

Honorable mentions

Cristian Casseres Jr.: It was a six-point week for the red side of New York, and their do-it-all Venezuelan center mid was at the heart of most of RBNY’s best moments. Casseres completed 74% of his passes vs. ATLUTD and 78% at Sporting KC, which is quite good considering his team’s relentlessly direct tactics, with four chances created among them. As usual, he imposed himself physically all over the park, winning duels and disrupting the opponents’ buildups. Will some club overseas make the Red Bulls an offer they can’t refuse this month?

Julian Araujo: Let’s hear it for another YPPOTW regular who continues to handle his business most weeks. The Galaxy’s young right back ranged forward to notch two assists against Montréal and racked up plenty of defensive actions while regularly getting involved in buildups and combination play.

Daniel Pereira: Austin FC’s young No. 6 made amends for the red card he picked up at Montréal last month by coming off the bench to lash a golazo game-winner at Charlotte FC, a game that held extra meaning for him since its proximity to his home in Roanoke, Virginia allowed dozens of family members and friends to attend. He followed that up with a solid outing at Colorado, completing 93% of his 46 passes as the Verde conjured up an impressive comeback in front of a packed Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Jacen Russell-Rowe: Another Crew youngster summoned to step into the breach created by absent veterans, the striker shined in his first-ever MLS start, bagging two assists to defeat his hometown club Toronto FC, where he spent some seven years of his academy career but didn’t get a homegrown contract. Russell-Rowe's is one of the first MLS NEXT Pro developmental success stories; we wrote a great deal more about him here.

Federico Navarro: Chicago’s 1-0 upset of Philadelphia at Soldier Field was perhaps the most head-turning result of the past week, and it was delivered by the 22-year-old Argentine center mid’s timely deflected finish. Navarro has quietly been a bright spot in the Fire’s difficult 2022 and his engine-room work is key to their hopes of a second-half resurgence.


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.