Midweek matches tend to not be the most notable in MLS. But ask the old-school and hardcore fans about their favorite matchnight memories, and you’re likely to hear some good stories about nights like Wednesday, when a quintet of matches offered up some fun, a bit of chaos and some useful points in the bag that might come in handy down the stretch.
Depth has always been a vital quantity and now – like so many other areas of MLS – it’s taking on a younger tone, with more and more teams willing to trust players who would’ve been considered wet behind the ears just a few years ago.
All five of Wednesday’s matches featured key contributions from youth, and that bodes well for both clubs and countries. First, to the Bronx…
James Sands, New York City FC
James Sands | USA Today Sports Images
They leaked four to Toronto FC and endured a 3-3 shootout in Minnesota. But NYCFC have now posted two straight clean-sheet victories after the 1-0 defeat of Chicago, and teenage Homegrown James Sands has been at the center of that defensive improvement.
The central defender in a three-man back line is not quite the role I expected to see Sands playing at this stage of his career and he’s got plenty still to learn. That said, he’s savvy and technical and head coach Dome Torrent is making a strong declaration of trust by using him there. His passing out of the back can improve, but he seems to possess the calm decision-making that’s so key in that spot.
Donovan Pines and Chris Durkin, D.C. United
You wouldn’t have known it was Donovan Pines’ second career MLS start as he anchored D.C.’s smash-and-grab 1-0 win in Columbus with a steady, unfussy rearguard action in a tactical shape similar to NYCFC’s. I had Wayne Rooney as my man of the match but the tall, rangy rookie center back won United’s MOTM nod, and with good reason.
One line ahead of him, Chris Durkin – while still showing some teenage frailties here and there – again made a decent case for a bigger role in D.C. as he staved off a front-foot Crew midfield. Now we’ll see if these two have earned the confidence of Ben Olsen as United visit Minnesota on national television on Sunday (1:30 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info).
Montreal Impact’s young gunners
It’s flown under the radar as usual on the south side of the border, but the Montreal Impact have gotten markedly younger and quicker in multiple positions this year, using their established formula of mixing Homegrowns with intriguing imports. On Wednesday we saw what the outlines of a possible post-Nacho Piatti era might look like as they trounced the Revs 3-0 in Massachusetts.
Nigerian striker Orji Okwonkwo has arrived from Bologna with ample Serie A experience for a 21-year-old and comprises an attacking trident with Homegrown Clement Bayiha on either side of Maxi Urruti. Both cover ample ground from end to end along the channels and are constantly eager to run at defenders, especially in transition.
French-Quebecois right back Zachary Brault-Guillard has local ties but was borrowed – at least for now – from Olympique Lyonnais and has slotted in nicely as a sturdy, athletic modern fullback, with the added benefit of Bacary Sagna’s tutelage.
It’s a good time to play the Revolution, but something both familiar and new is brewing in Montreal.
Julian Araujo, LA Galaxy
Araujo defends Kevin Molino | USA Today Sports Images
How often does a 17-year-old right back earn praise as the best player on the field in an MLS game featuring the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Darwin Quintero and Jonathan dos Santos?
Full Araujo highlights vs. Minnesota
That’s what Julian Araujo did on Wednesday, before an ankle knock ended his night. The kid has vaulted into the public eye for both the Galaxy and the US U-20s, and if this injury works out to be a manageable one, the stage could be set for him to shine this year.
Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes
Matias Almeyda’s Quakes are suddenly a hectic, ragtag whirlwind of run-and-gun fun with a pleasantly “Expendables” sort of vibe. You could argue, though, that the smooth young Minnesotan at the heart of the midfield is the brains of the operation.
Jackson Yueill’s Opta map in the 2-2 draw at Seattle showed a little bit of everything; the kid is merging a classy passing range with high-intensity ground coverage and when he’s clicking, it makes everything go for the most interesting team in the West right now.
The MLS season has always been a marathon, a grind of a march through three seasons, myriad conditions and lots of frequent-flyer miles. The intensity seems to be dialing up a bit this year given the more compressed calendar and tussle for playoff seeding, and successful teams can call on a broad cast of characters to deliver on occasions like Wednesday.