National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who were Decision Day heroes?

Young Players - 10.23.23

Decision Day is all about making the big plays and securing the result your team needs by any means necessary.

For many years in MLS, this was the kind of scenario in which many coaches were hesitant to place their faith – and potentially their job security – in the hands of youngsters, often trusting veterans instead.

That’s certainly changing at many clubs, and with good reason. Quite a few kids were up for the big moments on Saturday (Matchday 38). Here’s the best of the best.

Isn’t it nice to be ahead of the curve sometimes? YPPOTW readers have been reading our writeups of Tolkin’s steady stream of great performances for more than two years now, and on Decision Day he got a well-deserved closeup before a national audience after donning the hero’s cape for RBNY in Nashville:

Truth be told, for most of this game, the homegrown left back wasn’t quite racking up the gaudy stats he has been this season, influenced in no small part by the cagey tenacity that’s common at GEODIS Park: 17/26 passing (65%), 2/6 on crosses, just one corner kick taken, 3/5 duels won, four defensive actions and six recoveries.

Solid numbers, for sure, just short of the relentlessly, reliably high usage and work rate he’s made the norm. But that pales in comparison to the clutch mindset he flashed when Nashville conceded a penalty kick in injury time, offering the Red Bulls a lifeline as they sought to extend their streak of Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualifications to an MLS-record 14 straight years.

Despite having never before taken a penalty kick in his three seasons as an MLS regular, JMi stepped up to the spot and coolly drilled his take into the bottom right corner to clinch a playoff spot (and a Team of the Matchday presented by Audi nod, as it turned out). Tolkin then minutes later issued a tasty riposte “to all the haters.” This kid’s just got it:

CLTFC will be the Red Bulls’ opponent in the Eastern Conference Wild Card match on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), and it’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Vargas.

The Colombian winger had a hand in both of The Crown’s goals in the 2-2 rescheduled midweek visit to Inter Miami, scoring one and assisting on the other:

… then tallied the only goal in their 1-0 win over the Herons at a packed Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, while also completing 23/29 passes, winning 3/3 duels and 1/1 tackles while tabbing six recoveries, four defensive actions and two fouls drawn.

It was a pretty fantastic time for Vargas to bag his third and fourth goals of the league campaign, securing his team the points they needed to edge into the playoffs for the first time in their history.

Our coast-to-coast tour of Decision Day difference-makers continues in Carson, California, where Kamungo, aka The Abilene Dream, was also a Tanzanian tiger in a must-win situation for FCD as they visited the LA Galaxy.

Even though he’d just hopped off a plane from Arizona after spending the international window with the US Under-23 national team – where he notched an assist in both of their friendly wins over Mexico and Japan – Kamungo was a beast from the opening whistle. First, he hared in behind the Galaxy back line to calmly open the scoring in the fourth minute.

Then he restored Dallas’ two-goal lead at the half-hour mark with a thumping back-post header to ease any potential nerviness after the hosts had halved the deficit via Raheem Edwards. Kamungo also played two key passes, won 5/8 duels and contributed six defensive actions, all in just 43 minutes, as he exited the match with an injury that will surely have coach Nico Estévez sweating over the phenom’s status heading into FCD’s Round One Best-of-3 series with Seattle.

Another one of our regular YPPOTW protagonists in 2023, Moon Boy delivered on DD, too. RSL wanted to beat their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals from Colorado for a fourth time this season and Luna’s winner – a product of both hustle and composure – ensured that they did.

It looked like Luna might be chasing a lost cause as he pursued a long ball down the left touchline, but he showed admirable resourcefulness in outmuscling Rapids defender Moïse Bombito, a much larger man, keeping the ball in play and then advancing on goalkeeper Abraham Rodriguez and roofing a fine angled finish from short range.

Luna also played two key passes and completed 3/4 long balls on the night, and now gets to showcase his abilities in the playoffs, where we suspect RSL’s prospects will rise and fall on his form, especially with star striker Chicho Arango’s availability in doubt.

NYCFC have gone from MLS Cup champions to playoffs spectators in under 23 months, which even with the sales of Taty Castellanos and Gabi Pereira would’ve not long ago seemed quite unlikely. Their newest blue-chip youngster certainly did his part to keep them in it until the last possible moment, though.

Hosting the Chicago Fire in one of two true Decision Day six-pointers, the Pigeons needed a win and help from elsewhere, and Fernández took care of the first part of that equation with an absolute screamer from long range, a left-footed finish with admirable curl, velocity and placement.

The 19-year-old Argentine attacker also created three chances for teammates, completed 69% of his passes overall, drew two fouls and logged six recoveries. We’re eager to see what the teenager can do with a full preseason and a little bit more acclimation under his belt in 2024.

Honorable Mentions

Jake Davis: The other zero-sum Decision Day game unfolded in Kansas City, where Sporting’s homegrown right back did well to keep Minnesota United’s flank threats in check en route to a season-saving 3-1 win for SKC. Davis completed 40/44 passes (91%), created one chance, won 4/6 duels and 3/4 tackles and made six defensive actions.

Josh Atencio: The Seattle Sounders registered a “remember us?” type of statement win in St. Louis, and they did so with some key veterans on the bench, as Atencio logged an impactful 90 minutes in the center of the park, showing bravery and steel on both sides of the ball in the hectic sequence of physical clashes that CITY SC tend to provoke. The homegrown has been quietly crucial for the Rave Green this year:

Daniel Edelman: Tolkin might never have gotten the chance to slot that playoff-clinching penalty if not for his fellow RBNY academy product’s constant graft in midfield. Edelman racked up 12 defensive actions, 11 recoveries, won 7/13 duels (plus 4/6 in the air) and completed 81% of his 47 passes against Nashville’s rugged veteran engine room.

Abraham Rodriguez: Congratulations are due to the Rapids’ 21-year-old goalkeeper. More than three years after signing his HGP deal, he finally made his first MLS start due to Marko Ilić’s illness, and showed he was ready for the moment. One of several homegrowns in the Colorado XI, Rodriguez made four saves to hold off RSL, aside from being exposed on Luna’s winner.