National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who stepped up in Matchday 16?

Young Players - MD16

Clean sheets, comebacks, barnburners – young players were at the heart of some of the biggest storylines of Matchday 16. Let’s dive into the details.

And as always, you can have your say on this roundup. Just find a post like this after the MLS weekend and share your nominations.

Patrickson Delgado
FC Dallas • Midfielder

FCD’s chaotic 3-3 draw with Real Salt Lake was the prototypical tie-that-felt-like-a-loss, considering they led 3-0 at home with half an hour left to play. Their Ecuadorian central midfielder still deserves some dap for his role in that first 60 minutes, starting with his first MLS goal, an opportunistic exploitation of the second of Zac MacMath’s two howlers:

Delgado showed intelligence and enterprise to spot and attack the space RSL had left as they took a corner kick, and got his reward by following the play even after it looked like MacMath had it covered. This was Delgado’s second goal in as many games; he scored a banger in US Open Cup action vs. the Tampa Bay Rowdies in midweek.

He was playing two different roles in these two matches, by the way. Nico Estévez asked Delgado, who is nominally a No. 6 by profile, to work as an attacking mid against Salt Lake, and he coped well with that tricky assignment, completing 32/35 passes (91%), creating three chances and winning most of his duels, earning a bench spot on the MLS Team of the Matchday presented by Audi.

Diego Luna
Real Salt Lake • Midfielder

Conversely, RSL exited that match the happier of the two sides due in large part to Luna’s contributions to their dramatic comeback. Moon Boy got the rally going with a calm first-time finish of a flowing team move, his third league goal of the season:

Beyond that, Luna completed three key passes, won 4/5 ground duels and drew two fouls on 56 total touches in 61 minutes on the pitch as the Claret-and-Cobalt extended their league unbeaten streak to 11 matches.

This is Luna’s third YPOTM nod of the season, and we reckon things are shaping up nicely for the kid to make real noise with the US men’s delegation at the Olympics this summer.

Kevin Kelsy
FC Cincinnati • Midfielder

Cincy’s 4-3 comeback win at Toronto was arguably the craziest game of the season so far – if you didn’t see it live, consider marking off some time to watch the full match replay. And Kelsy was instrumental in FCC doggedly matching or eclipsing everything TFC threw at them in front of a raucous crowd at BMO Field.

The young Venezuelan’s third goal in his first five FCC appearances pushed the visitors into their first lead of the night, as he showed cold-blooded composure in the penalty box to collect the rebound of a saved Luca Orellano effort, set it up for his preferred left foot and hammer it past Sean Johnson.

Paired up top to good effect with another 19-year-old, homegrown Dado Valenzuela, Kelsy again showed why he’s been such a valuable reference point for the Knifey Lions. Cincy are quickly learning they can play long balls in his direction with good odds he’ll dig something out that allows the rest of his team to advance their lines. He finished the evening with 18/19 passes completed (95%), 6/10 ground duels won and four fouls drawn.

“I thought Kevin had a really strong game,” said head coach Pat Noonan afterwards. “The physicality that he provided, holding the ball, battling some strong center backs and allowing us to move up the field or at least have an opportunity to win some of the knockdowns was impactful.”

Owen Wolff
Austin FC • Midfielder

Teen Wolff is back on our list for the first time in several weeks, thanks to his efforts in earning the pragmatic Verde a tenacious road point from their visit to San Jose despite getting dominated in the run of play, as the lopsided expected goals tally of 3.5-0.7 indicated.

Wolff completed 88% of his passes, three of which were chances created, and totaled six recoveries, six defensive actions and 5/9 ground duels won in his 90 minutes. His most obvious impact was the set piece he served into the danger area to precipitate Brendan Hines-Ike’s equalizer, his third assist of the campaign:

The 19-year-old has recently been the subject of heated debate in certain segments of the ATXFC press pack and fan base, with some loud detractors insisting he’s only on the pitch as much as he is because his father Josh is the head coach.

We’ll confess to being a bit mystified by the persistence of these allegations. Sure, Owen is not yet the finished product and needs to bone up on his defensive work rate. But it’s not hard to see the tools he’s got and the huge potential it presents for his future – and his displays at youth international level show plenty of other coaches recognize it, not just his dad.

Obed Vargas
Seattle Sounders FC • Midfielder

OK, we confess: Right now we’re not entirely certain what Brian Schmetzer wants or expects from his 18-year-old homegrown on the right side of midfield, which is nominally where he’s been deployed these last few games instead of Cristian Roldan, who’s been – on paper – shifted back to Vargas’ usual central spot in the double pivot next to João Paulo.

Vargas and Roldan have often interchanged in those roles and did so again as the Sounders won in St. Louis over the weekend, which Joe Lowery over at framed as Schmetzer moving on from the dodgy idea of playing Vargas wide – and we see what Joe is getting at.

More simplistically, though, perhaps Schmetzer just wants Vargas on the field as much as possible, and that’s understandable. The teenager handles the basics and the dirty work at a level far beyond his years: 55 touches, 85% pass completion, one key pass, 8/9 duels won, eight recoveries and 10 defensive actions, including a team-high 5/5 tackles completed and one foul drawn against CITY SC.

Honorable Mentions

João Pedro: Charlotte FC are undefeated in their last five matches, and have not conceded a single goal during that span, which makes them MLS’s stingiest side in terms of goals allowed this season. Pedro has started at left back in the past three of those games and looks like another MLS NEXT Pro success story for The Crown. The 21-year-old Brazilian completed 62/71 passes (87%) in Saturday’s scoreless draw with Philadelphia, totaling 101 touches and 11 recoveries, completing a team-high 3/3 tackles and winning 5/8 ground duels.

Brian Gutiérrez: The homegrown playmaker produced his best outing in several weeks as Chicago Fire FC dug out a 1-1 draw at D.C. United, playing a game-high four key passes, winning 4/6 ground duels and tabbing seven recoveries and seven defensive actions. Add in the revealing fact Chicago allowed underperforming Designated Player Xherdan Shaqiri to miss this match to join the Swiss national team’s camp early, and the Fire’s direction, at least in creative terms, becomes clear.

Dado Valenzuela: Cincy’s teenage homegrown is learning on the job in a new strike partnership alongside fellow 19-year-old Kelsy, and it’s fascinating to watch his development unfold in real-time. After the early setback of Deybi Flores beating him to a Lorenzo Insigne corner kick for Toronto’s opening goal – “a good lesson about how physical you need to be with a mark,” noted Noonan afterwards – Valenzuela stuck to his task and was involved in some of the FCC attack’s best moments, also winning 6/10 ground duels and totaling nine defensive actions.