National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young Players: Who were the standouts in Matchdays 14 & 15?

Young Players - MD14 and MD15

Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire can be a time of elevated, intensified emotion, which can easily complicate a young player’s efforts to keep composed and handle the task at hand.

Not so for this group. This week’s YPPOTW honorees tuned out the noise and met the moment, making key contributions across Matchdays 14 and 15, be it in derby matches or less fiery occasions.

Diego Luna
Real Salt Lake • Midfielder

It’s showtime in Utah. RSL are leading the rest of the Western Conference on a merry chase, picking up seven points in eight days to extend their unbeaten streak to 10 games. None were sweeter than Saturday’s incredible, delirious 5-3 comeback win over Rocky Mountain Cup rivals Colorado, a match in which they trailed 2-0 early, then 3-2 with just a few minutes left in regulation.

Luna has been at the heart of all this. Moon Boy notched his seventh assist of the season by whipping in the corner kick Andrés Gómez lashed home with a vicious full volley to draw Salt Lake level at 2-2, and also completed 91% of his 53 passes, creating two chances, and completed 3/4 dribbles, won 6/9 ground duels and drew three fouls.

At midweek, Luna engineered a 2-0 win over Seattle, first spearheading a quick transition and logging a secondary assist on Gómez’s opener, then firmly netting the clincher himself after some slick footwork just outside the Sounders’ penalty box. He also completed 92% of his 37 pass attempts, two of them key passes.

Let’s also salute Luna for making another big play: opening up about his struggles with mental health, and getting some help. The Sunnyvale, California native has shown admirable openness about his situation, and it might someday turn out to be a priceless form of inspiration for others.

Malachi Jones
New York City FC • Forward

The rookie draft pick from little Lipscomb University got a taste of the big time, and a place in these pages, with his debut MLS goal last week. The 20-year-old is ready to keep eating, based on his role in the vital early goal that powered New York City FC into the ascendancy – an advantage they would not relinquish – in their Hudson River Derby clash with the New York Red Bulls.

City have accumulated a stack of creative technicians, and now Jones has arrived with a very complementary toolkit of energy and verticality that can open the game up for his teammates. Head coach Nick Cushing later revealed how he’d preached “intensity and attacking mentality” to his team, and the rook brought it with a 91% pass completion rate, 2/2 tackles won, 3/6 ground duels won, one foul drawn and miles of hard running in his 73 minutes.

“I think his best attribute is, he’s going to be a nightmare to play against. He's dynamic, he's quick, he's really agile with the ball, he's a good dribbler,” said Cushing of Jones. “Coming into the professional game, he's got a lot to learn, but I don't worry about that, based off his humility and his work ethic.

“He works me incredibly hard, and the [assistant] coaches, because he wants film and he wants individual sessions and he wants in the gym and he wants to know what he should eat for his breakfast. So he wants the next thing and the next thing and the next,” joked the Englishman. “And that, as a coach, is a dream, right? But we just got to make sure we just keep improving him, keep putting him in the team. I know he would cause Red Bull problems tonight, because I knew the way that they wanted to defend and how aggressive they want to be with their fullback, and it was a great start to the game.”

Kevin Kelsy
FC Cincinnati • Forward

Another 96 minutes on the pitch for Cincy’s new striker + another goal = another YPPOTW nod for the Venezuelan teenager. Oh, and two more wins for the Fighting Garys, who have won six straight and are now tops in the Supporters’ Shield table on a points-per-game basis.

The kid is gradually finding his rhythm, even on a relatively modest diet of touches; he totaled just 14 in slightly over an hour in the 1-0 midweek win over Atlanta, then 18 in a substitute appearance vs. St. Louis at the weekend, with four shots and two key passes across the two matchdays.

And, uh, welp… who knows how high FCC can fly if opponents keep giving Lucho Acosta time and space to pick out an unmarked Kelsy for alley-oop headers at the back post? This team is 4W-0L-0D in Kelsy’s four appearances to date, conceding just two goals, and we suspect he’ll contribute more in all departments as his fitness and fluidity sync up with the rest of the group’s.

Considering how superb Cincy already are defensively, that’s foreboding for the rest of the East.

Jack McGlynn
Philadelphia Union • Midfielder

Yung Jack is becoming a constant YPPOTW presence whether Philly win, lose or draw, thanks to the sheer volume and cadence of incisive passes he’s racking up.

The Union lost to NYCFC on Wednesday, their fourth consecutive home loss – it’s truly shocking to be typing out that phrase about a side that previously went months, even years between Ls at Subaru Park – before banking a comfortable 3-0 win at New England that was broken open by an early DOGSO red card to Ryan Spaulding.

That’s McGlynn bending in a delicious cross to the head of Julián Carranza for the crucial opening goal at Gillette Stadium, his third assist in Philly’s last three games and his fifth of the year across all competitions. He totaled 65 touches, 51/57 passes competed and won 3/4 ground duels on the night after entering for Brujo Martínez in the 28th minute.

McGlynn also assisted on Carranza's free-kick strike against NYCFC, one of 79 touches. He completed 85% of his passes and contributed six recoveries as well. We’re increasingly convinced he’ll be an Olympic darling come midsummer.

Gerardo Valenzuela
FC Cincinnati • Forward

Quietly, slowly, painstakingly, Cincy’s transplanted homegrown is becoming a trusted regular for coach Pat Noonan, and he’s still only 19.

After his contributions to last week’s huge Hell is Real win at Columbus – their first ever in the Ohio capital city – Noonan called it “his best performance in an FCC jersey,” and walked the talk by starting the kid in both of the Knifey Lions’ wins this week.

Valenzuela completed 26/29 passes, created one chance, won 5/9 ground duels, drew two fouls and totaled five recoveries and seven defensive actions in the Wednesday win over ATLUTD, then completed 85% of his passes, tabbed three recoveries and drew two fouls in 59 minutes against STL CITY.

Notably, he did all this while working up top as a striker, a newer tactical assignment for a player who’s risen through the ranks primarily as a midfielder.

Honorable mentions

Nolan Norris: Turns out they do still play the kids at FC Dallas! With Asier Illarramendi and Liam Fraser sidelined, coach Nico Estévez handed the 19-year-old academy product his first MLS start of the season and just the third of his career in FCD’s derby duel at Houston, and Norris held his own under those demanding circumstances to help the North Texans take home a 1-1 draw. He completed 28/30 passes (93%), with one key pass and 2/2 accurate long balls, while also contributing six defensive actions in 65 minutes on the pitch.

Devin Padelford: Eric Ramsay called on the Minnesota United homegrown for Portland’s visit to Allianz Field, and Padelford handled his business at left center back, playing three key passes among an overall pass completion rate of 81% and winning 7/11 duels. Padelford also made seven recoveries and completed a team-high 4/5 tackles in the 2-1 win.

Jackson Hopkins: It was a mostly brutal week for D.C. United, who lost 4-1 at home to Atlantic Cup rivals RBNY before suffering an injury-time gut punch at Inter Miami. Still, Hopkins deserves a nod for his dirty work on both sides of the ball (pass completion rates of 83% and 91%, respectively, along with 11 total defensive actions and a majority of duels won) at the heart of the Black-and-Red midfield, where the 19-year-old has started four consecutive matches for Troy Lesesne.