National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who were the best young-player performers in MLS Weeks 28 & 29?

Noel Buck NE goal celebration

Labor Day has come and gone in the United States, and that means we’re into the home stretch.

One of the final double-game weeks of the 2022 season just tested the fortitude and focus of teams across Major League Soccer, and several of the standouts were among the youngest players on the pitch.

We’ll start in New England at midweek, where the Eastern Conference’s wunderkind goalkeepers faced off – and perhaps predictably, goals were nowhere to be found.

The Chelsea-bound 18-year-old got peppered with shots across CF97’s two matches this week, and didn’t allow a single one past him.

First he held the Revolution scoreless at Gillette Stadium in midweek – just as the Revs’ superb Serbian international Djordje Petrovic did to the Fire in the 0-0 draw – with close-range denials of Gustavo Bou, Tommy McNamara and Damian Rivera particularly impressive.

Slonina stood even taller as the Fire visited Columbus on Saturday, making nine saves to frustrate Cucho Hernandez and the Crew and steal a point for Chicago despite a lopsided inequity in the teams’ respective expected-goals numbers. The teenager’s shot-stopping has been the highlight of another unfulfilling season in the Windy City.

“He came up with another great performance – again,” said coach Ezra Hendrickson. “I think that’s his 12th shutout this year, so we know that he’s a good goalkeeper, has been good all year for us, so we’re happy to have him.”

Week after week, “Petro” has been right there with Slonina, Andre Blake and the MLS ‘keeping elite, and he too posted twin clean sheets to help the Revs stay juuuuuust above the playoff line in the East table. In keeping with the club tradition made famous by his predecessor Matt Turner, that’s meant a steady stream of donut offerings for his defenders.

Petrovic’s penalty-kick save on Chris Mueller – his league-leading third of the year – was Wednesday’s clutch moment…

… and he upped the ante with a seven-save outing vs. New York City FC, deepening the defending champions’ tailspin with a 3-0 victory in Foxborough. Afterwards coach Bruce Arena’s praise put the Serb in elite company.

“Without Carles Gil, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And then Petrovic coming in, those two players for us are among the best players, easily, in their positions in the league,” said the veteran boss. “And they’ve carried our team in really rough times, because we’ve been really decimated with injuries.”

La Joya scored in a second straight match as the North Texans journeyed north to snatch an impressive 3-0 win off Minnesota United at Allianz Field, a result with potential postseason implications for two sides chasing a top-four finish out West (and the home playoff match that offers).

The 20-year-old winger also posted an 88% pass completion rate, threatened on the dribble as usual and provided some honest defensive work to boot. Let’s be honest, though, what you really want to see is that lovely finish from Zone 14:

It’s the latest example of the Argentine cutting in from the wing onto his wicked right foot to test goalkeepers from the left channel, an area we’re about ready to christen the Velasco Zone. Defenders, beware.

Congratulations are due to the 17-year-old homegrown on his first career MLS goal, a well-struck drive from distance vs. NYCFC that capped a solid performance in his second consecutive start.

It made him the second-youngest scorer in Revs history behind Diego Fagundez – which is pretty good company to be in considering what Fagundez did in New England, and continues to do in Austin.

The kid also won 6/8 duels against the champs, flashing a physicality beyond his years, and was effective against Chicago at midweek, too, passing at an 85% clip, defending responsibly and winning most of his duels there, too.

“He's a special talent,” teammate Tommy McNamara said on Sunday. “Very mature for his age; very confident. He had a great game. He had a great week. Since he's come into the team, he's done a lot to help the group and he deserved this goal today.”

Wednesday delivered a trademark central-Florida barnburner when the Seattle Sounders dropped in on Exploria Stadium for what turned out to be a wild 3-2 win for OCSC, fueled by a supersub display from the Lions’ Uruguayan winger.

Orlando saw Mauricio Pereyra’s penalty kick saved by Stefan Frei and trailed 2-0 after Raul Ruidiaz’s strike minutes into the second half. But Torres, who’d come on at halftime, arrowed home a pretty finish from range – his sixth of the season – to spark a furious comeback.

Later he played the pass out to Kyle Smith that led to Orlando’s dramatic winner at the stroke of full time, extending the Floridians’ winning streak to four and smoothing Torres’ path into the MLS Team of the Week for Week 28.

Honorable mentions

Jack McGlynn: The Supporters’ Shield-chasing Philadelphia Union enjoyed a six-point week and their 19-year-old center mid figured prominently in the second of those two results, notching his third assist of the year on Mikael Uhre’s game-winner against the New York Red Bulls. It was a highlight-reel play, to be sure:

Jesus Ferreira: The Cheetah scored his fourth goal in as many games as FC Dallas stunned Minnesota United, running his season tally to 16 and keeping himself right in the mix for the US men’s national team’s No. 9 job amid plenty of standout performances from overseas competitors like Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok.

Maciel: The 22-year-old Brazilian is like a good waiter in New England’s engine room – understated, effective and easy to overlook as he hunts down the ball and distributes it to his more famous teammates. He started both of the Revs’ matches this week and posted pass completion ratings north of 95% in addition to reams of defensive actions, and his first career MLS assist on Buck’s goal was the icing on the cake.

Leon Flach: Speaking of underrated midfield grinders, shout out to the 21-year-old German-American, who went the full 90 in both of Philly’s wins this week, using the ball efficiently and getting stuck in all game like he does almost every week. Lately Flach is garnering some much-deserved 22 Under 22 buzz – and reported transfer interest back in Germany – and we couldn’t agree more.


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.