As the old saying goes, Major League Soccer players make their money in the regular season, but they make their legend in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Actually, that's not an adage at all, I just made it up. But hey, maybe it'll catch on and I can finally make the cut over at BrainyQuote.com. The point is, there's no riper time for players to make a name for themselves than when the spotlight grows brighter with MLS Cup on the line. Last season, we saw the likes of Tajon Buchanan, Emanuel Reynoso and Alex Roldan do exactly that to help their teams reach the Conference Finals.
Of course, half the equation of a postseason emergence is opportunity, and that's the overriding theme of the picks that follow. I'm not predicting breakouts as much as I'm identifying the guys capable of breaking out who should have an opening to do so.
Eastern Conference Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs preview
You probably saw this one coming down Broad Street. Like older brother Brenden before him, young Paxten Aaronson has quickly demonstrated a flair for the back-breaking big play. On an offense-by-committee side, that sort of calling card is worth its weight in gold during the postseason.
While nearly all of Aaronson's damage thus far has arrived during starts, I certainly wouldn't want to be a tiring defender when he comes off the Philadelphia Union bench late in a tight contest. And now he'll get a chance to do something big bro never accomplished in Philly: contribute to a playoff win.
I've been banging the Atlanta United winger's drum for a while now, and he started making me look good over the last month of the season. It took a little while for his end product to kick in, but Luiz Araujo pitched in with three goals and as many assists in the club's final seven regular-season games. Every MLS Cup hopeful needs their Designated Players to come through to have any chance at a serious run, so the league-wide spotlight will be there for the 25-year-old to grab.
Honestly, I feel that the New York Red Bulls midfielder already broke out this season. It's just that I'm not sure all that many people really noticed. And while Cristian Casseres is a No. 6-No. 8 hybrid by trade, he was asked to play further upfield down the stretch, which gave him more chances to flash some offensive skills (two goals and four helpers in his last eight games, to be exact). If he continues in this vein to help the East's No. 7 seed pull off an upset or two, folks will definitely notice.
Full disclosure: I've been tipping the diminutive, lively playmaker for a breakout since he arrived at the Colorado Rapids. Obviously, it can be tough breaking into a side as good as the Rapids, but three goals and four assists from 27 key passes in 1448 minutes for a kid who just turned 21 speaks for itself.
Braian Galvan can create space on the dribble and he definitely has a bit of magic in his left foot. Like Aaronson, he should very much be a mortal enemy to tiring defenders. This is the guy Colorado opponents may not focus on, but they probably should. The Argentine's got game.
It's no secret that Nashville SC can suffer attack outages, or that these outages contribute greatly to their inability to close three-point deals. This issue became more evident down the stretch, when they scored multiple goals just twice during the 1W-1L-7D run that capped their regular season.
Like the weather, top striker CJ Sapong has cooled considerably since August (and it must be said that only three of his 12 goals came against playoff teams). Jhonder Cadiz hasn't scored since April and Daniel Rios simply hasn't gotten a consistent run. In my book, that leaves an opening for Ake Loba to show why Nashville paid a club-record fee to snatch him away from Liga MX's CF Monterrey at a very opportune time.
In part because he was slowed by an ankle knock last month, Sporting Kansas City fans haven't seen the full extent of what the Italian midfielder (of Argentine origin) can do. But that may soon change, with the former AC Milan talent a strong summer signing.
Jose Mauri is a hard-nosed ball hawk whose game also has the silk to smoothly transport his team into the final third. In other words, he's very much a Peter Vermes-style soldier in the middle of the field that very well may be needed against a Vancouver side that lays on pressure.
The Real Salt Lake goalkeeper's rookie season certainly had its up and downs, but that's what you get when a 20-year-old is charged with a starting role in net. David Ochoa's learning curve has been steep, and he may be ready to put those lessons to good use.
Since a harsh late September 6-1 defeat at Portland, the youngster has shown some signs of progress in all areas of his job (even if consistency is still a work in progress). He's become more vigilant with area command, his distribution has become more selective and, most importantly, the kid has deservedly posted strong GA-xGA numbers in five of eight since that dark day at Providence Park.
Santiago Rodriguez seems to be building toward a breakout with New York City FC. Though he hasn't scored for a couple of months, the Cityzens' late ship-righting run coincided with 21-year-old re-entering the lineup. His footprints were all over NYCFC's important 6-0 demolition of D.C. United and his tempting entry pass led to the winning penalty against Chicago one week later.
He's been showing more verve on the ball, which is something any possession-based team can't have enough of come playoff time. NYCFC fans surely rest easy knowing he's on loan from Uruguay's Montevideo City Torque until December 2022.