The Stretch Run: Key players in the Eastern Conference

Macoumba Kandji, Houston Dynamo

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Getty Images

The final stretch is here.

As teams prepare to enter the final quarter of the 2012 MLS campaign, the playoff races are already off and running. The top six teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by only 10 points, and it's make-or-break time for clubs vying for playoff position.

With postseason play on the line, it's time for individuals to step up. Those who do will find themselves gunning for a Supporters' Shield, while those who don't can only watch it from the stands like the rest of us. Heading into the latter part of the season, here are the players in the Eastern Conference playoff race to whom we think teams will need to turn for success.

Check back Thursday for a look at the key players in the Western Conference playoff race.

Player

What We See

C.J.
Sapong
(SKC)

 

Where did he go? During an influential June, Sapong seemed poised to go on a tear and shatter his 2011 Rookie of the Year numbers. However, it's been more than two months since the 23-year-old has found the back thanks to poor form and injury. Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara have handled the bulk of the scoring in his absence, but a healthy Sapong could propel Sporting KC to their first Shield since 2000. If he becomes a consistent goal threat again, three dangerous attackers may just be too much for opposing defenses to contain.

  • Season statistics: 22 GP (16 GS), 1,418 minutes, 5 G
  • Current Eastern Conference standing: First (46 points, 25 GP)

Dax
McCarty

(NY)

 

The road to success for New York goes through McCarty  literally. One of the best defensive midfielders in the league for a reason, his presence was noticeably missed during the Red Bulls' 2-0 defeat in Houston on August 3. If McCarty can connect passes through the midfield and create chances for the plethora of offensive weapons he has in front of him  the likes of Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper, Sébastien Le Toux and Tim Cahill then New York will be a tall task to handle. And defensively, they've been a sieve when he's not protecting the backline.

  • Season statistics: 24 GP (24 GS), 2,154 minutes, 2 G, 2 A
  • Current Eastern Conference standing: Second (44 points, 25 GP)

Macoumba
Kandji

(HOU)

 

It seems like Kandji is finally living up to all the potential Juan Carlos Osorio first saw in him way back in 2008. The big Senegalese winger has come to life in head coach Dominic Kinnear's new 4-3-3 system, and the Dynamo have ridden his success to the tune of only one loss in their last 10 matches. Can his torrid pace continue in the latter part of the campaign, and can he start finding the net a little more often himself? If the answers are "yes," then Houston could find themselves well in the Shield hunt.

  • Season statistics: 21 GP (13 GS), 1,050 minutes, 3 G, 2 A
  • Current Eastern Conference standing: T-Third (own tiebreaker 41 points, 25 GP)

Chris
Rolfe

(CHI)

 

Chicago have gone 5-2-2 since Rolfe debuted in the starting XI on June 29, and the dynamic trequartista has really hit his stride over the past month with his former club. He has four goals in his last four games and has helped the Fire rattle off three consecutive wins. If Arne Firedrich and Austin Berry can keep a handle on things in the backline and Sean Johnson continues to stand on his head, Rolfe's contributions will become all the more valuable in Chicago's remaining 10 matches and could determine just how far they go.

  • Season statistics: 12 GP (9 GS), 897 minutes, 5 G, 1 A
  • Current Eastern Conference standing: T-Third (41 points, 24 GP)

Chris
Pontius

(DC)

 

It's been a year to remember so far for Pontius. In addition to equalizing against Chelsea in the MLS All-Star Game, the D.C. United man has been running rampant of late. With five of his career-high 10 goals coming in the last eight weeks, Pontius is peaking at the right time for the Black-and-Red, who still have games in hand on every team above them in the standings. However, sitting just one point ahead of Montreal for the fifth and final playoff spot — and suffering an uncharacteristic drought from Dwayne De Rosario — United will need his knack for timely goals to continue.

  • Season statistics: 20 GP (16 GS), 1,419 minutes, 10 G, 1 A
  • Current Eastern Conference standing: Fifth (37 points, 23 GP)