Autumn has officially arrived, the matches are coming thick and fast, and urgency permeates all of them as the final scramble for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs unfolds.
With so many matches – the double game week of Matchdays 33 and 34 served up a whopping 28 matches for our #YPPOTW evaluation process, which might just be a record – and so much on the line, clubs called on young talent across the league, and so many of them responded with clutch contributions.
A month ago NYCFC’s season was on life support as they limped along on a 1W-8L-8D skid in league play that had dropped them to 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Nick Cushing pointed to the five-game home stand before them and declared it an inflection point for their year.
This week they exit that stretch with three wins and two draws, back in a playoff place (just barely but still!) and feeling a lot better about themselves after a six-point week. And their lanky Brazilian creator has answered the bell as well as anyone, scoring his first goal since April (!) to ice a midweek win over a very good Orlando team and notching an assist in a man-of-the-match outing vs. Toronto FC on Sunday.
Talles Magno also played one key pass, went 2/2 on dribbles and 3/3 on duels in his substitute outing vs. OCSC. Against TFC, who admittedly put up only the most salutary resistance, he completed a game-high 5/5 tackles, 46/53 passes, three of them chances created and one a setup for Julián Fernández on the Pigeons' third strike of the afternoon at Red Bull Arena.
The combined effects of the quality and inspiration Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba bring to Miami’s XI is such that when both made early exits from Wednesday’s match vs. Toronto in obvious discomfort from muscular/scar tissue issues, it threatened to destabilize the Herons’ urgent late postseason push.
It was the highlight of an impressive night from the U22 Initiative signing, who also assisted on Robert Taylor’s late exclamation point, completed 84% of his 65 passes, and logged six recoveries.
SKC are in a comparable boat to Miami; they too scuffled through some truly woeful stretches in the season's first half and now are racing against time to sneak into the playoffs. After a stinging 3-0 home loss to Nashville at midweek, Sporting really needed to take advantage of Houston’s looming US Open Cup Final date to spring an ambush at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday.
Though an early red card to Johnny Russell made the task all the more difficult, SKC pulled out a hard-won 2-1 victory, and their homegrown right back was the man of the match. Davis was an absolute dawg in defense, connecting on 4/6 tackles, making four clearances and two interceptions, and playing two key passes with an overall completion percentage of 76% and 69 touches.
No surprise, then, that Davis sauntered into the MLS Team of the Matchday presented by Audi.
That’s the kind of scale the zero-sum proceedings took on at storm-swept Audi Field, where United seemed to have gained the high ground when they surged out to a 3-2 lead on the strength of Christian Benteke’s first-half hat trick. Yet if there’s anything we know about Tolkin & Co., it’s that they are relentless in their energy and intensity regardless of game states.
Tolkin dropped the game-winning dime onto the head of Sean Nealis from the corner kick, then roamed forward to cap the comeback with a classy chipped finish in the late stages for a delirious 5-3 win. Oh, and did we mention Tolkin drew the penalty kick Omir Fernandez converted for the Red Bulls’ second goal?
It all made “JMi” an easy choice for Team of the Matchday.
Jasson delivered the cross Talles Magno headed home in the win over Orlando City, then scored his third goal of the year to stretch the Pigeons’ lead over TFC to 2-0 on the eve of halftime.
The 21-year-old attacker tabbed five defensive actions and six recoveries and won 13/17 ground duels against Orlando, then played two key passes and six recoveries vs. TFC.
Jasson, too, got a Team of the Matchday nod, and his surge in form provides Cushing with another useful option along what’s already one of the youngest and most dynamic front fours in the league when on song. Can they help the 2021 MLS Cup winners slip into the playoffs and become a dark horse to be reckoned with?
Brian Gutiérrez: It’s all gone sour in Chicago as the Fire’s winless skid extended to seven matches, but their 20-year-old homegrown playmaker is doing what he can. “Guti” was the star man of Saturday’s 2-2 home draw with New England, scoring a fine opener to level matters at 1-1, then teeing up Gastón Giménez to score CF97’s second.
Quinn Sullivan: Philadelphia's 19-year-old academy product staged a one-man rescue mission on Wednesday. The Union trailed 2-0 to Charlotte FC when Sullivan entered the match, and in 24 minutes he scored one goal and made possible another by playing Olivier Mbaizo into the CLT penalty box, where he was fouled to earn the penalty kick that allowed Philly to snatch a 2-2 road result.
Cam Harper: Another baby Bull who was clutch at D.C., Harper assisted on the Red Bulls’ opening goal with a smart cross to the head of Omir Fernandez. He later ghosted in at the back post to exploit some slack Black-and-Red corner-kick defending on the stroke of halftime, equalizing at 3-3 before RBNY later kicked on for a massive 5-3 W. Harper also completed 9/10 passes and was active defensively.
Aziel Jackson: How sweet it must’ve felt for AZ to play super-sub in the comeback away win over Minnesota United, the team that traded him away to St. Louis CITY last winter, with a game-winning assist to Njabulo Blom on Saturday. Overall, Jackson created two chances, passed at a 92% completion rate, went 3/4 on the dribble and threw himself into his defensive duties as usual.