National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who most impressed in Matchdays 36 & 37?

Young Players 10.9.23

While there’s still some drama left for Decision Day, the past week marked a moment of truth for a large chunk of MLS, with a litany of teams either clinching qualification for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or seeing their hopes officially extinguished after the results of Matchdays 36 and 37.

The pressure only increases as the stakes are being driven home thusly, and several of those who seized those moments were among the youngest players on the pitch. So here, for the penultimate time in the 2023 regular season, is our rundown of the top performances among those under the age of 22.

La Naranja secured a playoff spot with their midweek draw at Montréal – one of the league’s toughest away days this year – but Quiñónes & Co. are aiming a good deal higher than that: a top-four finish in the Western Conference that would provide them with home-field advantage in at least one round of the postseason.

The resulting urgency was palpable as they carved open Colorado right from the jump on Saturday night. Running rampant down the left and also drifting inside regularly, Quiñónes bagged a brace as the Dynamo took a 4-0 lead into halftime en route to a 5-1 W.

The Colombian winger went agonizingly close to a hat trick via several other good looks, and also notched a hockey assist on Artur’s late exclamation point. Quiñónes notched 46 touches, 94% passing completion, two key passes and put 4/5 shots on target overall en route to a spot in the Team of the Matchday presented by Audi.

While not quite as unstoppable on Wednesday, he nonetheless passed at an 80% clip, creating three chances, and logged 10 recoveries in Quebec.

The Bee Gees’ 1977 smash hit “Stayin’ Alive” exploded into a global anthem thanks to its prominence in “Saturday Night Fever,” the movie that captured the New York disco scene like no other. It’s also a fitting ode to RBNY’s sudden 3W-1L-2D surge over the past month, which could well rescue the MLS co-record 13-year streak of postseason qualification that looked in grave danger just weeks ago.

Two of those wins were banked this past week, and few did more to earn them than Manoel. The 21-year-old Brazilian attacker hit a dandy half-volley for the game-winner in the Red Bulls’ impressive 2-1 upset of Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati at midweek…

… then bagged assists on all three of RBNY’s tallies in Saturday’s 3-0 home rout of Toronto FC.

The first came from some characteristically taurine high pressing on Michael Bradley which forced a turnover and easy tap-in for his strike partner Tom Barlow. The second was a simple early square to Luquinhas that gave his countryman plenty of time and space to scamper forward and finish from distance. And the third was a secondary helper on a flowing team move capped again by Luquinhas.

If RBNY do indeed squeak into the second season, their Brazilian duo will have been a huge factor.

The Angelinos also enjoyed a six-point week, splashing in nine goals across their two runaway wins over Minnesota and Austin. As eye-catching as Dénis Bouanga's role was in all that, their new Uruguayan winger played his part and then some on LAFC’s opposite flank.

Olivera played three key passes while posting an overall completion rate of 88% vs. the Loons, directing 5/7 shots on target and going 3/6 on the dribble. He also won 6/10 duels, won 2/2 tackles and drew one foul.

While not as statistically dominant, the 21-year-old was arguably even more impactful in Texas, winning the penalty kick that Bouanga converted for LAFC’s second goal, and later scoring his second strike of the league campaign to run the scoreline to 4-0 and render ATX’s late rally nothing more than an exercise in pride retention.

Under Hernán Losada, CFM have become a side powered by youth and that energy was visceral in the rain-soaked 4-1 win over Portland at Stade Saputo that kept the Québécois above the playoff line.

Ibrahim is one of the youngest of the bunch and the Nigerian frontrunner chipped in 1g/1a against the Timbers, the highlight of an intriguingly quirky stat line: 26 touches, 3/9 passing, one key pass, three shots, 0/1 on dribbles, 5/8 ground duels won, four fouls drawn and two defensive actions.

The kid’s got an engine, and Losada’s style lets him rev it on both sides of the ball. Ibrahim wasn’t quite as overpowering in the midweek home draw with Houston but still contributed in his 45 minutes off the bench with 26 touches, 3/9 passing, one key pass, 0/1 on dribbles, 5/8 ground duels won, four fouls drawn and two defensive actions.

Week after week, whatever the circumstances in which his team finds itself, Tolkin just keeps finding ways to contribute, and thus he’s been one of the most ubiquitous faces in our YPPOTW rundowns.

The relentless left back notched another assist on Manoel’s game-winner in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat of Cincy, setting a new club record for assists by a defender across all competitions, then led the RBNY rearguard to a much-needed clean sheet in the 3-0 rout of TFC.

Against Toronto, Tolkin got 65 touches, played four key passes and completed 85% of his 39 passes overall, and also made a game-high 4/4 successful tackles – and the wild child even managed to light up the MLS 360 show with an unintentional s-bomb on a live broadcast, too. That’s our boy!

So it was no surprise for us whatsoever when he was part of the squad just announced for this month’s US Olympic team camp in Arizona.

Honorable mentions

Josh Atencio: The Seattle homegrown came off the bench to earn a dramatic game-winning assist by flicking on a long throw-in to Cristian Roldan in the sixth minute of injury time in the Sounders’ 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy on Wednesday. Then he locked down central midfield with 10 defensive actions, six recoveries and 9/11 overall duels won in the 0-0 draw with Vancouver.

Adilson Malanda: Charlotte FC’s French center back was a quiet pillar in the back as CLT posted clean sheets in the victories over TFC and Chicago they very much required to breathe late life back into their playoff prospects. The composed effectiveness of 70/74 passing (95%) in the first W, 44/54 passing (81%) in the second, and aerial dominance in both, is just what The Crown needed.

Aidan Morris: The box-to-box terrier was his usual all-action self as the Columbus Crew took four points from six on back-to-back road games on turf in New England and Atlanta, with only Miles Robinson’s last-gasp set-piece equalizer denying them two wins. Morris assisted on Cucho Hernández’s goal in the latter match and posted pass completion rates north of 90% in both games.