We’ve seen 12 games in the 2013 postseason, and aside from one dud – Saturday’s offense-free slog between leg-weary Sporting Kansas City and exhausted Houston – it's been a banner ad for postseason soccer, full of electric encounters and heightened drama.
Three of last week’s Conference Semifinals went to extra time and the fourth produced five goals, including two late ones that stirred faint visions of a miracle comeback.
In Sunday night’s Conference Championship first-leg capper between Real Salt Lake and Portland, we saw an unexpected rout, tempered by a stoppage-time goal that gave the Timbers a lifeline heading into the second leg at JELD-WEN Field.
In short, the playoffs have been every bit as exciting as anyone could hope, and they’ve provided a stage for individual players to step up and make a difference in their teams’ title hopes.
Through 12 of the postseason’s 15 games, with MLS Cup in sight, who has delivered the most for their team? Who’s poised to be the ultimate difference maker in the 2013 playoffs?
Let’s take it team-by-team:
Houston’s Dynamic Duo
The Dynamo got two goals from Will Bruin in their playoff opener against Montreal, and they’ve received contributions from players all over the field (as well as from their playoff-savvy coach, Dominic Kinnear). But there are two players most responsible for Houston being one win away from MLS Cup 2013: Tally Hall and Omar Cummings.
Early in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against New York, Hall made an uncharacteristic error, spilling a cross and gifting the Red Bulls a goal in the 23rd minute. He spent the next 97 minutes making up for the gaffe – and then some.
Hall stopped eight Red Bulls shots, and gobbled up every cross and free kick that entered his area. Just before halftime, he made the save of the night, stabbing away a Thierry Henry shot that had been redirected at the six by Tim Cahill.
Frustrating New York at every turn, Hall kept his team in the game until extra time, when he ceded the stage to Cummings.
The Jamaican international has struggled with injuries all season, logging just 190 minutes in 11 appearances, but he’s regained his fitness lately and is starting to get regular minutes – and make them count, to say the least.
In the first leg against New York, the speedy, dangerous Cummings drew a foul from Red Bulls center back Jámison Olave, whose subsequent red card was a series-swinging event. Cummings then went on to nab the first-leg equalizer in stoppage time.
He topped that in the second leg, coming on as a sub again and nicking the series-winning goal in extra time.
That’s two substitute appearances and two goals, one a last-gasp equalizer, the other punching a ticket to the Conference Championship.
KC at the Back
While Peter Vermes waits for his attackers to get untracked, he’s gotten enough offense from one of his defenders, big Frenchman Aurélien Collin, to make it to within a game of MLS Cup 2013.
Collin scored a critical late goal in the first leg against New England, preventing SKC from returning home in a 2-0 hole for the second leg, and then he opened the scoring in that encounter, paving the way for his team’s 3-1 win that booked passage to the Eastern Conference Championship.
Sporting Kansas City have also benefitted from Oriol Rosell’s industry in midfield, and the playmaking of Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber (who set up Claudio Beiler’s winner against the Revs on Wednesday).
But their next most vital contributor has been goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. He may not have had much to do in the second leg against New England, but Nielsen came up huge when called upon, as in the 110th minute, when he stymied the Revs’ Premier League-bound striker Juan Agudelo on a breakaway.
In Saturday's grim affair against Houston, Nielsen was as solid as ever, sound in his positioning on Cam Weaver’s second-half header, and excellent in a diving save on Boniek Garcia’s 28th-minute curling free kick.
He’ll be between the pipes at Sporting Park in two weeks, looking to help his team finally knock off the side that’s eliminated them from the postseason in each of the past two seasons.
Admit it, when Will Johnson cranked that free kick over the wall and past Real Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando in the 14th minute on Sunday night, you thought, "This is Portland’s year. The Timbers are on their way."
Johnson has had that kind of a stretch run, providing leadership and timely goals for the Timbers as they rode a 10-game unbeaten streak into the conference finals. Of course, there was a massive shift in momentum on Sunday night, and Johnson and his team need to make up a two-goal deficit in the second leg. But if they do pull off the improbable, look for their captain – or their Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri – to be at the heart of it.
Getting Real in Salt Lake
Schuler, a self-described “piano mover,” tickled the ivories – or the twine of Portland’s net – with a well-placed header to tie the game in the 35th minute. It was his second goal in his past two playoff games – the previous one being the series-winner against the two-time defending champion LA Galaxy. (He’s also proving to be a solid center back partner for Nat Borchers.)
Both of Schuler’s goals were set up by Morales, who also played a part in Devon Sandoval’s 48th-minute strike against Portland on Sunday, and added a goal of his own in the 82nd minute to put the Western Conference Championship first leg out of reach at 4-1.
The 33-year-old Argentine, who missed most of RSL’s 2009 championship game with an injury, appears ready and hungry to make up for that absence.