Monday Postgame: The team is the star at Real Salt Lake, but have the parts outstripped that mantra?

Appropriately enough for a week that featured the blockbuster return of US international Clint Dempsey, this round of MLS action was all about impact players.

It’s that time of year: the conference playoff races are in gridlock, and teams need their big players to make big plays.

From Toronto to Texas, and Vancouver to Philadelphia, those players obliged, providing the difference that secured points for their teams, as well as a glimpse of what will be necessary to stay above the red line come October.

Week 24 was also notable for the debut of D.C. United midfielder Michael Seaton, 17, the first MLS player born after the league’s launch in 1996 (pictured right), and for New England defender Kevin Alston’s first start since he was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring. Finally, continuing a season-long theme, there were several more inconsistent, or just plain incorrect, decisions from the referees.

But center stage belonged to the difference-makers, the players who can deliver that extra bit of quality that separates their team from the opposition as the parity-laden season hits the home stretch.

The 2013 title may well come down to which team gets the most from their difference-makers – or which team can pick up the slack when their impact players are absent or under-perform.

This week was telling in both respects. Let’s take a look:

Stepping Up

While Dempsey’s Seattle debut came earlier than expected on Saturday night in Toronto, and he performed well in 56 minutes of action, the Sounders were set on the path to victory by two of their other difference-makers: Eddie Johnson, last year’s team leader in goals, and Mauro Rosales, who topped the team in assists in 2012.

Those two hooked up for the game’s first goal just 16 minutes in, and the Sounders were on their way. They got a scare from a resurgent Toronto in the second half but held on for a 2-1 win, their third straight victory.

Halfway across the continent, in a powerful response to Dempsey’s dramatic arrival in the league, Deuce’s fellow US national team star Landon Donovan exploded for three goals against FC Dallas on Sunday night.

If not for some blown calls by an assistant referee and two goals from Dallas’ go-to guy, Blas Perez, Donovan’s outburst would have been enough to secure three points for LA. As it happened, the teams ended up with a wild, 3-3 draw.

Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia also got big contributions from big guns, as Kei Kamara headed in two goals for Peter Vermes’ side in a 3-0 whitewashing of New England, and Conor Casey scored both goals in the Union’s 2-0 win over a young D.C. United team.

Kamara’s production (on two assists from Soony Saad) helped compensate for the absence of KC catalyst Graham Zusi, while Casey and Philadelphia winger Sebastien Le Toux, who leads the league in assists with 12, made up for the ongoing scoring slump of the Union’s top goal man, Jack McInerney.

Both Sides of the Coin

In Columbus, the visiting Red Bulls were not as successful in covering the production holes in their lineup on Saturday. Missing Designated Players Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, along with speedy winger Lloyd Sam, last round’s Player of the Week, the Red Bulls were less dynamic in attack, mustering just two shots on goal.

That left it for one of last season’s more electric impact players, 2012 Newcomer of the Year Federico Higuain, to make the difference. He did just that, delivering two goals to send his team to a 2-0 win.

It was a solid victory for the Crew, but it’s possible that New York’s impact players had as much to do with it as Higuain – by not being there.

The Fire were also missing three key players as they hosted Montreal on Saturday night, kicking off the game without Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe, their three top scorers.

Unlike New York, though, Chicago coped without their key cogs, getting two early goals and hanging on for a 2-1 win. Rolfe came on for the last 20 minutes and made a difference, albeit at the opposite end from where he usually impacts a game: The Fire attacker made a victory-preserving clearance off his own goal line in stoppage time.

Mixed Bags

Vancouver got a goal-line clearance from Nigel Reo-Coker (pictured right), along with a standout save from ‘keeper David Ousted to stay level with visiting San Jose in a match crucial to both teams’ playoff standing (like just about every other game from here on out).

Then the Whitecaps got second-half goals from leading scorer Camilo and Designated Player Kenny Miller, while San Jose’s go-to guy, Chris Wondolowski, missed on the doorstep. Result: Vancouver 2-0.

In the weekend’s capper, Colorado locked down a road point in a nasty encounter with Chivas USA that featured three red cards.

After standout rookie Deshorn Brown had his penalty saved by Dan Kennedy, the Rapids’ rising left back Chris Klute’s helped salvage the point with his club-leading seventh assist of the season. Klute’s beautifully lofted 80th-minute cross found the head of Martin Rivero, who nodded it home to lift the Rapids into a 1-1 road draw.

Team is the star, or team of stars?

They’ve had a saying during the past few years at Real Salt Lake: The team is the star. It’s a motto that’s both reflected and sustained the club’s style and formula for success.

But one look at the lineup RSL put out against Houston on Saturday night – with US internationals Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran and Kyle Beckerman, crafty playmaker Javier Morales, dangerous speedsters Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia, and consistent goalscorer Alvaro Saborio – and you couldn’t help wonder if the saying should be tweaked to “a team of stars.”

Salt Lake are stacked with talent and increased depth; they’ve rebuilt their team without really missing a step, and they maintained their top spot in the Supporters’ Shield standings with a rugged 1-0 win over Houston that featured vital contributions from all of the aforementioned players (plus midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who’s having one of the best seasons of his career).

When you look at which team’s impact players might have the last word down the wide-open stretch run, you have to consider the superstars in LA, Seattle and New York, and you wouldn’t neglect the talent in KC or Portland, but the smart money may be on the lower-wattage, but plentiful stars of the current Supporters’ Shield leaders.