The Stretch Run: Key players in the Western Conference

The Western Conference is quickly heating up.

As teams prepare to enter the last quarter of the 2012 MLS campaign, the West has the makings of a fight until the end.

With postseason play on the line, it's time for individuals to step up. Those who do will find themselves gunning for an MLS Cup, 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 Western Conference playoff race to whom we think teams will need to turn for success.

Check back Friday for a comprehensive historical look at MLS stretch runs through the years.

Player

What We See

Chris
Wondolowski
(SJ)

No surprises here. San Jose go as Wondolowski goes. The league's leading goalscorer sits 10 goals shy of breaking Roy Lassiter's single-season MLS goal record with nine games remaining, but Wondo - and the rest of the Earthquakes for that matter - are no strangers to late drama. With San Jose one point clear for the league's best record, if the MLS All-Star has a finish even remotely close to last year's goal frenzy, then the Quakes could be a shoo-in for the MLS Supporters' Shield and earn Wondo a legitimate shot at his third MLS Cup.

  • Season statistics: 23 GP (23 GS), 2,061 minutes, 18 G, 5 A
  • Current Western Conference standing: 1st (47 points, 25 GP)

Fabián
Espíndola

(RSL)

He has turned into the C.J. Sapong of the Western Conference. Not only has he not scored since June 16 – the last time Sapong found the back of the net for Sporting Kansas City – but the Argentine attacker has only recorded a single point in his last nine matches. Real Salt Lake are only five points back of the Earthquakes for first place in the West, but they are fading quickly. Four losses in their last six is not the run of form teams want to be hitting down the stretch, and with Álvaro Saborío likely to draw more attention because of his torrid scoring streak, the opportunities should come for Espíndola. RSL's success depends on him capitalizing.

  • Season statistics: 23 GP (21 GS), 1,740 minutes, 6 G, 4 A
  • Current Western Conference standing: 2nd (42 points, 26 GP)

Mauro
Rosales

(SEA)

Much like teammate Fredy Montero and the rest of his Seattle Sounders, the biggest question facing head coach Sigi Schmid is, which player will show up? Will it be the Rosales who has made some costly giveaways in the middle that plagued this Seattle squad during their nine-game winless run? Or it will be the dynamic playmaker whose patience and vision has been an invaluable asset in the Sounders' star-studded attack? If it's the latter (and we'll give him the benefit of the doubt here), the race for Western Conference supremacy may very well come down to the last match of the season with Seattle in the hunt for hardware.

  • Season statistics: 20 GP (18 GS), 1,461 minutes, 1 G, 10 A
  • Current Western Conference standings: 3rd (40 points, 24 GP)

Omar
Gonzalez

(LA)

The Big 3? More like the Big 4 – as in the backline. It all starts with 2011 MLS Defender of the Year Gonzalez who, after tearing his ACL back in January, is still finding his form in central defense for the reigning MLS Cup champs. The Galaxy's three Designated Players – Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane – are all going to produce, that much is evident from their gaudy numbers since their return from the international break two months ago. But ultimately how far LA can go will be determined defensively, and if their recent showing vs. Chivas USA in the 2012 debut of their first-choice back four is any indication, opponents may just have a difficult time dethroning the Galaxy.

  • Season statistics: 6 GP (5 GS), 427 minutes, 1 G, 1 A
  • Current Western Conference standing: T-4th (own tiebreaker – 37 points, 26 GP)

Barry
Robson

(VAN)

Robson's first impression in MLS has been utterly impressive. The 33-year-old Scottish international has gone the full 90 in eight of his his nine matches and provides a consistent tempo in Vancouver's midfield. Will he be the force in the center of the park to drive the Whitecaps to the postseason in only their season year in MLS? Vancouver will certainly hope so, considering they completely restructured their midfield to make room for him. If Robson starts adding more tangible numbers to his impressive work rate, Martin Rennie's side could very well do something special come postseason play.

  • Season statistics: 9 GP (9 GS), 777 minutes, 2 G
  • Current Western Conference standing: T-4th (37 points, 26 GP)