National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who stepped up in Matchdays 19 & 20?

Noel Buck - NE - young players

That sweltering sun? The steady accumulation of mileage on players’ legs, and the injuries that inevitably accompany it? Those big international tournaments calling key contributors away from their clubs for the next week or four?

It is well and truly summertime in MLS, and this year even more than most, that means teams are looking to younger players to pitch in – and in some cases even carry the bulk of the load. Take a spin across Matchday 20 (and the abbreviated four-game Matchday 19 we’re including in this week’s rundown), and you can see the rewards being reaped by sides with talented, prepared kids at their disposal.

And remember, you can have your say on YPPOTW – just find a post like this on or around most Mondays during the regular season:

How ‘about them Revs?! With Saturday’s 3-2 home win over Vancouver, the team synonymous with disappointment, dodgy defending and occasionally even a dollop of dysfunction for most of the season have now won three straight. Somehow, some way they are… am I reading this correctly? Only four points back of the playoff places in the Eastern Conference?

Yes, that’s right, and their brace of 19-year-old homegrown wunderkinds have played a significant part. Bajraktarevic has now scored in back-to-back games, and while his latest had some rub of Celtics green to it compared to last week’s banger, you can see the winger getting more comfortable, more purposeful, more daring in and around Zone 14 when it counts.

Esmir also completed 90% of his passes, went 2/2 on dribbles, won all three of his ground duels and totaled four recoveries.

Should we have led off this list with Buck, the antlers hand sign and cervid-themed emoji he’s increasingly incorporated into his brand? Well, his goal against the Whitecaps probably did have more banger-ish qualities than Esmir’s, for what that’s worth:

We edged his fellow academy product ahead based on Bajraktarevic’s overall body of work; up to now 2024 has been left wanting for Buck, who was making his first start since April 20 and had yet to score or assist in MLS play. That prelude makes this outing, and the message it sends to coach Caleb Porter, all the sweeter, though.

Working alongside Ian Harkes in the engine room, Buck was tidy with the ball, the England youth international completing 34/38 passes and winning 4/6 duels and four recoveries. If he and Esmir strike up a rhythm in tandem with Carles Gil, Giacomo Vrioni and the rest of the Revolution’s core, there might be some juice left to squeeze in Foxborough this year.

“It was an unbelievable shot,” Porter said of Buck’s blast. “He’s got it in him. I saw it last year when I was watching film on him and for some reason earlier in the year we weren’t seeing that.

“I would like to see more.”

Happy birthday to Guti, who just turned 21, and got the celebrations off to an early start with a guiding hand in the Fire’s 4-1 demolition of Toronto FC at a stunned BMO Field. The homegrown passed at a 98% completion rate, including two key passes, one of which notched him an assist via fellow local kid Mauricio Pineda’s bullet to effectively end the contest at 3-1:

Working as a pocket winger behind Hugo Cuypers in a 3-4-2-1 formation Frank Klopas lined up to both match TFC and amplify his own side’s strengths, Gutiérrez both pulled the strings and disrupted the opposition, as he has to good effect since Xherdan Shaqiri’s departure for the Euros handed him the conch, with the Men in Red unbeaten over those four games.

Even when it’s a teenage phenom seemingly vaulting onto the stage out of nowhere, we readily recognize and respect that a player’s breakthrough moment is invariably preceded by years of hard graft and dogged devotion to climbing the ladder. That being said, doesn’t it feel like we’ve gone from 0 to 100 with Guti in not very long at all?

Peruse the worldwide web and you’ll learn none other than Cruz Azul, the Mexican giants who just made both Atlanta United and Giorgos Giakoumakis offers they couldn’t refuse in order to seal a big MLS-Liga MX transfer, are rumored to be kicking the tires on Chicago’s reported $5 million asking price for the Mexican-American dual national. They grow up so fast...

Frankly, the league-leading Herons had no business whatsoever slipping into Chester without Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and several other key regulars, suffering not one but two second-half red cards, and still escaping with a 2-1 comeback win over the Philadelphia Union.

Their ability to pull off such a trick hinged on clutch moments from multiple youngsters and reserves, including Benja, who started in central midfield and bagged his second assist of the regular season on Julian Gressel’s snappy side volley.

Were his touches a little sloppy? Yes, but he still digs out a telling pass, and we love the instinctive movement that led him into the Philly penalty box to sniff out a game-changing play. It was one of two chances he created on the night, part of a 43/47 overall distribution column, and he nearly found the game-winner with a downward header that clipped off the crossbar before Leo Afonso conjured up Miami’s delirious late winner.

Further, Cremaschi went 3/6 on the dribble, offered several defensive contributions and covered ground while matching the Union's rugged physicality, no small facet of any mission to Subaru Park.

Things have been mostly grim in KC, who now sit second from bottom in both the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference standings after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the LA Galaxy. SKC’s young Honduran prospect looks like one bright spot to build on, however.

Vargas was the definition of a game-changing super-sub in Sporting’s comeback win over Seattle back on Matchday 19, just the third league win of the season for the Midwesterners. And it wasn’t just the cheeky shot he snuck past Stefan Frei for the late winner that sent Children’s Mercy Park into raptures, Vargas’ second MLS goal in just 252 minutes this season.

SKC were playing downhill in those final stages because Vargas had entered the match with a directive from Peter Vermes: Attack Sounders left back Reed Baker-Whiting and try to force him into a second yellow card. Which is exactly what happened just one minute later, when RBW tugged down Vargas after the Honduran pushed the ball past him and turned on the jets.

That was one of three fouls drawn by Vargas, who also completed 7/10 passes and won 3/5 ground duels – a decent outing in just 18 minutes on the pitch.

Honorable Mentions

Agustín Ojeda: New York City FC’s five-match winning run came skidding to a halt as the Columbus Crew marched into rainy Yankee Stadium and banked an impressive 3-2 win on Friday night, in one of the more enjoyable viewing spectacles of the past several matchdays. Ojeda still deserves a tip of the cap for keeping his side in it with his second goal of the year, via a vertical, flowing passing sequence that looked to us like a prototypical NYCFC move on that compact field of theirs:

Luke Brennan: Atlanta United’s latest homegrown starlet burst onto the scene with an eye-catching cameo in the 2-2 draw with Houston at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Pressed into service for the first time this season when a knee injury forced Edwin Mosquera off after just 18 minutes, Brennan was poised and probing on the wing, playing a key role in ATL’s opening goal, and completed 85% of his passes, two of them chances created, went 3/5 on the dribble, drew two fouls and waded into 12 ground duels.

Fernando Álvarez: CF Montréal weren’t particularly enterprising at home against Real Salt Lake. But we’ll focus on the positive aspects of that 0-0 result by saluting their 20-year-old Colombian-American center back, who won 3/5 tackles, 4/8 ground duels, made a game-high seven clearances and threw himself into three blocks. It added up to 17 defensive actions at Stade Saputo.