National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who seized their chance on Matchday 6?

Fidel Barajas - Young Players - Matchday 6

You might have heard the grumblings of a few negative Nellies out there during MLS Matchday 6, on account of somewhere north of 100 players being away on international duty during FIFA’s March window.

Don’t buy it. Here at YPPOTW, weekends like this are eagerly anticipated, because they open up opportunities for new and in many cases younger faces to step up, and in doing so highlight the wealth of rising talent just waiting for a shot at the spotlight.

“I think that's the case for any young player, is you're always needing an opportunity and sometimes it shows up from injury, sometimes it shows up for international duty,” Real Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni said on Saturday, and we heartily agree. “But the most important thing, and the hardest thing to preach from a coaching perspective, is to be ready when that opportunity comes.”

Remember, on any given matchday you can join along in this process and even share your nominations for the top performances among young players, whether in real-time or after the fact. Just look for a post like this one:

It’s not very often that a teenager who just earned their first career start in top-flight club play is broached as a conversation topic at a national-team coach’s press conference following a continental championship final. But that’s exactly what happened with Fidel Barajas as Gregg Berhalter took questions in the wake of his US men’s national team’s Concacaf Nations League thumping of Mexico in Arlington, Texas on Sunday night.

Barajas, who turns 18 next week, had just balled out in his debut start for Real Salt Lake, assisting on both of their goals (he also completed 26/31 84%\ in Vancouver. So it made sense when a reporter asked Berhalter if wins like Sunday’s might affect the efforts to recruit dual-nationals like him who must eventually choose between El Tri and the Yanks.

“I wouldn’t get carried away with that type of stuff. I think it's the heart of the player and we've always said this: they have to feel in their heart,” said Berhalter in a characteristically careful response. “They have to really want to be part of the group and to really want to fight for their country in international competition. For us, all we try to do is show them the environment, show them the group of guys. I spoke a lot about what a quality bunch of guys we have on our team, and you can see that.”

Whatever he says publicly, rest assured the Yanks’ coach and the rest of the US men’s staff most assuredly have their eyes on Barajas, who got this chance in large part due to Diego Luna being away with the US Under-23s.

Life comes at you fast under the hot global spotlight that is trained on Inter Miami at all times in the Lionel Messi era, even when the GOAT is unavailable, as he was due to injury for the Herons’ up-north trip to Harrison, New Jersey to visit RBNY.

Verily, IMCF spun from “no Messi, no problem” at D.C. United last weekend to something more like “naked in the rain” at an absolutely drenched Red Bull Arena, thanks to the hurting that Wiki Carmona, Lewis Morgan and their taurine mates doled out in a head-turning 4-0 rout.

While Morgan justly got the shine for a hat trick against his former team, Carmona was excellent as well, scoring his first MLS goal of 2024 and logging 41 touches, 23/25 passes completed (92%), including 2/2 accurate long balls, nine recoveries and three defensive actions.

This was the 21-year-old Venezuelan’s first start of the year and he’s earned some more – he stands to benefit by proximity if the understanding between Morgan and striker Dante Vanzeir, who assisted on all four Red Bulls goals, keeps building.

Possibly the most unexpected result of the weekend took place out in Portland, however, where a very undermanned Philly outfit – due in large part to youth national team call-ups – stunned the Timbers and their pricey new signing Jonathan Rodríguez in a 3-1 road W.

The DOOPers’ game-clinching second goal arrived via the quick feet and clever poaching instincts of Sullivan, who continues to be quietly excellent for the Union this season in what may yet prove a breakout season. Sullivan, 19, now has two goals and two assists across league and Concacaf Champions Cup action, has played a key pass in all but one of his eight appearances and looks comfortable in multiple areas and roles on the field.

While breathless transfer reporting and other forms of hype swirl around his younger brother and fellow “Baby Snake” Cavan, who some have called the best youth prospect on earth at the moment, Quinn just keeps putting in the work and making the gains. In Stumptown his very Philly-style stats line also included 21/27 pass completion, six defensive actions, five recoveries, 5/11 ground duels won, two fouls committed, two drawn.

Are TFC really doing this?

Yes, TFC may actually do this – ‘this’ meaning ‘fielding a consistently competitive and occasionally even highly entertaining top-flight soccer team.’ And John Herdman, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are bringing the kids with them.

One week after opening his 2024 account in a losing cause at New York City FC, Marshall-Rutty was arguably even better in the Reds’ 2-0 beating of Atlanta United, despite not making it onto the score sheet. Working as a right wingback, the homegrown played two key passes, distributing at an 84% overall clip, connected on all three of the crosses he attempted, completed 4/5 dribbles and five defensive actions, won 8/10 ground duels and drew three fouls over his 90 minutes.

There was a sense of hang-on-and-hope about some of Toronto’s impressive spring results, but an expected goals tally of 2.7-0.8 against a solid ATLUTD squad underlined what a deserved victory this was, and their 19-year-old homegrown is a noteworthy component of the equation.

The Black & Gold’s intriguing U22 Initiative winter signing from Venezuela is gradually, steadily finding his feet and starting to cook.

Sure, entering a match with your side up 3-0 at home against an overmatched opponent playing with 10 men is being set up to succeed. Yet that shouldn’t devalue how razor-sharp Martínez looked in his 23-minute cameo in the 5-0 demolition of Nashville SC.

The winger was ready to run and combine from the jump, be it attacking defenders with the ball at his feet, charging into space to provide options to his teammates or drifting in close to seek out a telling pass like the one he touched to Cristian Olivera to notch his first MLS assist. Martínez attempted 10 passes, completing seven, and two of them were key passes.

Honorable mentions

Cody Baker: Seattle’s 20-year-old academy product made a difference off the bench in San Jose, pinging a lovely cross to Danny Musovski at the back post to draw the Sounders level with the Earthquakes at 2-2 after falling behind 2-0 in the first half at PayPal Park. Alas, the Rave Green leaked a Jeremy Ebobisse winner just one minute later.

Niko Tsakiris: On the opposite side of that Heritage Cup clash, Tsakiris brought some welcome movement, precision and control in advanced midfield for the previously winless Quakes as he marked his first minutes of the season. The homegrown was smart and dynamic as he completed 87% of his 30 passes, one of them a key pass, in 64 minutes.

Brooklyn Raines: The 19-year-old midfielder was clean and incisive on both sides of the ball as the Houston Dynamo snatched a late road win over Colorado in Mile High Country for their second victory on the trot, extending his promising start to 2024.