Three for Thursday: Which three players will have the biggest impact on the playoff race?
Sometimes an extra little bit of quality can make all the difference in a game like soccer, which is often decided by the slimmest of margins.
This is especially true in the 2013 playoff race, one of the tightest in recent memory. And with that in mind, we take a look at three stars who could have a greater impact than others in this year's push for MLS Cup.
OSVALDO ALONSO (Seattle Sounders)
The defensive midfielder is a critical piece in the way the Sounders play – and their league-best defense.
He is at the top of the charts among midfielders in tackles, recoveries and interceptions despite ranking 49th in minutes played on that list, and he is also the league's most accurate passer of the ball among midfielders with at least 1,500 minutes played and 1,000 passes attempted. Among the Sounders, no midfielder even comes close to him.
In terms of team performance, Seattle have suffered half of their eight losses and conceded 13 of their 28 goals allowed during the seven games he's missed.
For all the star power the Sounders now boast, Alonso and his ability to completely transform the midfield in any given contest makes him perhaps their most indispensable player.
Sounders Remaining Schedule: vs. NY, at COL, vs. VAN, at POR, at DAL, vs. LA
JÁMISON OLAVE (New York Red Bulls)
Olave has provided a massive boost to the Red Bulls backline since arriving from Real Salt Lake in the last offseason's blockbuster trade.
The Red Bulls have gone 13-6-5 and kept 10 clean sheets in the 24 games he's started, but they've gone 2-3-1 and failed to keep a single clean sheet in games in which he's been subbed on or not featured at all.
Record aside, the quality he brings to the New York defense is evident any time he steps on the field. Not only can he shut down opposing forwards on his own, his recovery speed – even at age 32 – allows him to put out fires across the backline, an extremely valuable quality to any defense hoping to be a contender. With Olave likely to miss out in New York's big clash with Seattle this Sunday (9 pm ET, ESPN), we'll see first-hand what the Red Bulls defense looks like without him.
Now, with New York leading the Supporters' Shield race and jockeying for position with four other playoff contenders down the stretch, Olave's imposing presence will be needed more than ever in the three games after the Sounders clash for the Red Bulls to claim their first-ever piece of silverware, or even secure a favorable seeding in the playoffs.
The only question is: Can he stay healthy?
Remaining Schedule: at SEA, vs. NE, at HOU, vs. CHI
JUAN AGUDELO (New England Revolution)
An even bigger injury question mark than Olave, and perhaps even more vital to his team's success.
For example, just look at how much better New England are in possession with Agudelo as opposed to without, or the fact that Diego Fagundez has six goals and five assists in nine games with Agudelo and five goals and one assist in 17 games without.
Even though Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe both have more goals and assists than Agudelo, it is the soon-to-be Stoke City striker who clearly ties that attack together. And with the defense flagging slightly after steamrolling through the start of the season (three clean sheets, 20 goals conceded in their last 15 games vs. nine clean sheets, 13 conceded in their first 14), Agudelo's quality is exactly what New England needs in order to take pressure off the defense and put the Revs attack on par with the top attacking units in the league.
Remaining Schedule: vs. HOU, at NY, at MTL, vs. CLB, at CLB