One of the best parts of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is seeing new names, particularly young players, get on the field for MLS clubs. The Open Cup generally marks the last step on the pathway between the youth ranks and reserve sides to the first team. If you show well in the Open Cup, then you earn more time in MLS play.
Sometimes, young players fail to take their chance. Other times, though, they step up to the moment.
Here are five young players from the 20 MLS teams in action this week who performed well:
I wrote before the game that Andrew Carleton needed a standout performance. Despite his talent and youth national team track record, he will never get an easy path into the Atlanta United starting lineup. He won’t get time to ease into things. Consequently, he needs to impact the game every time he steps on the field.
In Wednesday night's win over the Charleston Battery, he did just that. Carleton started as the team’s central attacking midfielder, with Ezequiel Barco moved to the left for the game. He didn’t get on the ball a ton, but he made an impact when he did. In the 14th minute, he picked the ball up in between Charleston’s midfield and defense and ran at the Battery’s back four. When nobody closed him down, he sent a rocket to the side netting. The youngster will need to learn how to influence a game more, but his goal showed the kind of awareness, skill, and execution that Tata Martino should feel grateful to have in his squad.
Memo Rodriguez did what he needed to do in the Open Cup, and that’s score. The Houston Dynamo don’t need another goal creator – they have stars Alberth Elis and Tomas Martinez for that – but they haven’t been very efficient in front of goal the last couple years. The 22-year-old Rodriguez isn’t shooting for Elis’s or Martinez’s spots, but rather one of the other two attacking positions. As such, the more he can demonstrate an ability to capitalize on chances, the more he can show his value.
On Wednesday, he didn’t score a highlight-reel goal, but rather the type of scrappy chance the Dynamo has seemed to miss this year, and one which helped them to a comfortable win.
Can you imagine lining up for your first start and seeing David Villa across the way? That’s what Hassam Ndam, 19, did Wednesday night, and he played an important role in keeping the World Cup veteran scoreless. Ndam made his first start for the New York Red Bulls first team against NYCFC on Wednesday and helped the red side of New York beat their rivals, 4-0.
Anthony Fontana, 18, didn’t have a great game in the run of play, but like Rodriguez, he did the thing that the team as a whole needs most right now and played an important part in an emphatic win. Every team needs goals, but the Philadelphia Union happen to need them more than most. They’ve been really bad at turning opportunities into goals. Philly have players who can dictate a game, but they’ve struggled to turn their quality soccer into wins. In Fontana’s only other start for the Union this year, he also scored. The goal in Open Cup makes it 2-for-2. In his fight for playing time, Fontana left a nice impression whenever head coach Jim Curtin turns to the bench in hopes of finding a difference maker.
Jeremy Ebobisse, the No. 4 pick the 2017 SuperDraft, has found playing time hard to come by in 2017. The Portland Timbers signed a second elite forward, Samuel Armenteros, in the offseason and it pushed Ebobisse down the depth chart. But Ebobisse responded Wednesday night against San Jose in the Open Cup exactly how a player should, scoring the game-winning goal.
It wasn’t just the fact that the 21-year-old scored, however, or the quality of the strike, but the manner in which he got the opportunity. Ebobisse stripped a San Jose player of possession and then went straight to goal. It showed the kind of defensive bite and transition efficiency that has been a trademark of the Timbers this year, and something head coach Gio Savarese will want to see from players.
A couple other notes from Wednesday:
- Sporting Kansas City started three teenagers on Wednesday evening. Gianluca Busio, 16, made his Sporting first-team debut; Jaylin Lindsey, 18, made his second appearance; and Wan Kuzain Wan Kemal, 19, made his third. Sporting beat RSL, 2-0, in Sandy, Utah. All three teenagers played well. None of them stood out or influenced the game a ton, but all of them showed quality and comfort on the ball. I would have liked Busio to find ways to get more involved, and I felt he had similar tendency at GA Cup to fail to impact games, but he undoubtedly has unique attacking attributes.
- Julian Gressel started at defensive mid for Atlanta United. I’ve written a few times about how Tata Martino might handle his backlog of talent once everyone is healthy. Gressel has been a standout performer at right back, but Atlanta signed Franco Escobar in the offseason for the spot. Jeff Larentowicz is the current starting defensive mid and has been excellent, but in the event he gets hurt, nobody has shown capable of filling in, and there are (should be?) doubts about Larentowicz mobility in big games (see: Red Bulls). It’ll be interesting to see if the Gressel to center mid move was a one-game fix or a long-term experiment.
- Ariel Lassiter, now 23, doesn’t quite count as a young player, but he did something cool in the LA Galaxy game:
- FC Cincinnati outplayed Minnesota.
- New England and Seattle lost to USL sides, but both MLS clubs played reserve-heavy lineups. Even still, I loved Brad Friedel’s quote about his team’s performance:
Each and every day, you owe it to yourself as a player to bring the energy. It's not for somebody else to corral it with the group. It is a bare minimum requirement to work hard when you play soccer. The best players in the world, the most technically-gifted players in the world, they all work hard – every single one of them. You can never just stroll out onto the field and expect to get results.
- Colorado also lost to a USL side but played their first-choice team.