As fun as it may be, let’s sidestep for now this week’s amusing debate about who’s the favorite and who’s the underdog in Thursday’s Western Conference Semifinal between Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United (8:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes in US; TSN 1/5, TVA Sports on Canada), in favor of a question which stands to have a more direct impact on who wins at Children’s Mercy Park.
The Midwestern sides have plenty of talent throughout their roster, but these two names will top the marquee when they face off this week. And Thursday’s winner will very likely be determined by which of the two stars shine brightest.
Pried away from Liga MX giants Chivas Guadalajara last winter, Pulido is the capstone to Peter Vermes’ long-term project at Sporting, the $10 million man seen as the final piece for a squad built largely with value signings, draft picks and an increasingly fertile academy system.
“We’re in this world now,” said Vermes of the big investment at the time, “and we’re going to continue to be in this world.”
Watch: Alan Pulido's brilliant brace against Houston Dynamo
The Mexican striker cost twice as much as every other Sporting signing combined – yes, as in every single one in its entire 25-year history to date – and he’s looked the part when healthy, scoring six goals and five assists in 12 MLS matches so far and leading the line like the elite No. 9 he is. Unfortunately he’s been on the field for barely half of SKC’s season, which made it very welcome news for Sporting fans when Vermes pronounced him fit and available in a Monday press conference.
“Bebelo” Reynoso arrived in Minnesota from Boca Juniors in comparable fashion at the end of August, smashing that club’s transfer record with a fee in the range of $5 million, a smaller price tag than Pulido’s, but requiring a painstaking and time-consuming courtship. Here, said technical director Mark Watson, was the "type of player that can hopefully take the team to the next level."
Though he arrived in the meat of the stretch run with precious little time to acclimate, the Argentine playmaker has found his feet quickly, racking up a goal and seven assists in 13 regular-season games before seizing the spotlight by assisting on all three of the Loons’ goals in their 3-0 Round One dispatching of Colorado.
“Reynoso’s massive for us,” said center back Michael Boxall afterward. “In previous years, I think we've got a big percent of our goals from counterattacking and I think now he gives the ball when players need it … right on time, to the right place, to the right foot.”
Sometimes you can learn a lot about a certain topic by closely examining the trendsetters and early adopters. In other situations, the chasing pack can offer just as much food for thought.
Such has been the case for big-ticket spending in MLS lately. As much credit and coverage as we tend to extend in the direction of the Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United and the dueling Los Angeles clubs, whose ambition and investment has pushed the league’s pace over the years, the most interesting recent development is happening in their wake.
Watch: Reynoso scores against FC Dallas
It says a lot that more and more of the likes of Sporting and MNUFC, budget-minded clubs with reputations for fiscal caution, feel compelled to splash out for game-changers on this tier. They might not be able to gold-plate everything they do, but big occasions are often decided by big-time players and the first two weekends of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs bear that out.
By my count, 25 of the 36 goals so far in this postseason were scored or assisted by Designated Players – that’s some 69%, and that doesn’t include other key contributions like penalties won, or the Hany Mukhtar shot that led to Daniel Rios’ game-winner in Nashville SC’s upset of Toronto FC.
It might sound obvious to point out that the highest-paid players in the league make a disproportionate number of the decisive contributions in the biggest games of the season. But we’re also talking about a maximum of three of them per team, and that number might even undervalue how influential talents like Nico Lodeiro, Josef Martinez, Raul Ruidiaz and Sebastian Giovinco have been on recent MLS history.
Sporting and the Loons have their own particular models, and believe in them. But they bought their centerpieces because they see which way the wind is blowing, and nights like Thursday are exactly when those investments are supposed to pay off.