There will be quite a few players worth watching on Sunday as the MLS Next Pro League kicks off the playoffs. Two key players to watch in the Houston Dynamo 2 and Tacoma Defiance match-up midfielders Marcelo Palomino and Marlon Vargas respectively .
Both Palomino and Vargas can change the course of history with one swift kick off their boot. Both are their team's leading goal scorer. Each have a knack for coming up big in big moments.
Tacoma would rather forget one of Palomino's big moments. It came in the 89th minute on June 26, 2022 in a 0-0 match at Houston's AVEVA Stadium. Dynamo 2 midfielder Juan Castilla was pulled down outside the 18 yard box in the final minute of play. Palomino's free kick effort eluded the wall, and dipped inside the far post to give Houston a win snapping their three game losing streak and Tacoma's nine game unbeaten streak. The native Houstonian leads the Dos in scoring with seven tallies including four on set pieces. Five of his seven goals have been first half goals either giving his team the lead or tying the match. Four of his markers have been game winners. He also has three assists.
Interim Dynamo 2 head coach Daniel Roberts had this to say about his young midfielder.
“He's been a really important part of the team," described Roberts. "Someone that came through the academy system, he is tremendous in between the lines. He gives us a little bit of the X factor in the final third, little bit of creativity, that little bit of spark. Obviously, very good off set pieces. Similar to when I was asked a question about Brooklyn Raines a couple of weeks ago, similar to Brooklyn. For as good of a soccer player he is and he's a fantastic young soccer player, he is someone who's similar to Talen (Maples) only going to get better. He is equally as good a personality, his character, and his approach to his daily work, he's someone that bounces between the first and second team, which isn't always easy. He always brings the right mentality and the right leadership to the second team when he's with us for training and for the games. So, a big piece of this team and looking forward to him continuing to be a big part of this team for for the next few weeks.”
Tacoma's midfielder Marlon Vargas was recently named to the MLS Next Pro's inaugural Best XI. He leads the team with 12 goals and seven assists. He has knocked home a goal in 10 of 11 matches including at one point goals in six straight matches followed by a four game scoring streak. He has two multiple goal games plus three games where he has tallied at a goal and an assist. The Salvadoran international is dangerous from anywhere. To go along with his thunderous right foot that has accounted for six goals, he has one from the left side, a set piece goal and four penalty kick conversions. Three of his goals have been game winners. Good or bad, depending on how you look at Vargas has not scored in his last five outings. Houston is also one of the teams against whom he has not been able to ripple the net.
Tacoma Defiance head coach Wade Weber has high praise for Vargas.
"He has had a statistically excellent year in terms of his contributions to our attack, but his willingness to work for the team when we don’t have the ball is even more impressive," described Weber. "He has been a force multiplier for us this season.
They say in soccer that whoever controls the midfield controls the match. On Sunday night, two young, promising players will match skill sets on the pitch in hopes of leading their team to the next round of the playoffs. Will it Vargas and the Defiance who went 9-2-1 at home or the Dos led by Palomino and his talented leg? Kick-off is set for 9:30pm CT in the final match of the weekend. The winner will get either St. Louis City 2 or North Texas St.