Postseason heroes come from all areas on the field, making it difficult to predict which players will make the difference as the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs begin this weekend.
With that in mind, we've weighed up which clubs have the advantage across each line of the formation and in goal as they strive to raise MLS Cup on Dec. 11.
We've ranked a top three among the 14 teams for goalkeepers, back liners, midfielders and attackers (strikers and dyed-in-the-wool wingers), with an honorable mentions list for each.
All factors were considered, including depth and injury woes, but expected starters and big playmakers carried the most weight.
Think of reigning Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake as essentially a 1B in this ranking. He easily topped the league in clean sheet percentage (46.2%!) and was also best in MLS in outperforming his team's expected goals allowed (xGA) per 90 minutes. Few netminders have the ability to steal games like the Union man.
This was a solid bounce-back season for Tim Melia, who recaptured his mojo with both shot-stopping and area command. Of course, that's only part of the reason why he narrowly beat out Stefan Frei and Maxime Crepeau for this slot. When it comes to penalty shootouts in knockout games, there's no one like the iron-willed Sporting KC backstop.
Close but not quite: Seattle, Vancouver, Atlanta, New York Red Bulls.
Led by potential Defender of the Year repeat artist Walker Zimmerman, the Music City boys co-led the league in goals allowed and easily topped all in xGA. Only three teams allowed fewer shots and nobody forced opponents into more speculative long-range attempts. Zimmerman is deputized by the perpetually underrated Dave Romney, while noted troublemakers Daniel Lovitz and Alistair Johnston are one of the top wide back duos.
Despite going without pressure valve workhorse Nicolas Lodeiro for most of the season and a merely okay season from Frei (by his lofty standards), the Sounders were joint leaders with Nashville, allowing just 33 goals in 34 games. The basis for this accomplishment was a rangy backline marshaled by busybody Yeimar, and the consistent field-tilting of their deep fullback stable.
The Rapids talent tends to get overlooked because of their reputation as a team greater than the sum of their parts. But their backline group is constantly and rudely underrated. After all, Colorado conceded just two more goals than the two teams listed above them. Bottom line: Lalas Abubukar, Keegan Rosenberry, Auston Trusty and the rest of the gang simply don't get enough love.
Close but not quite: New York City FC, Philadelphia, New York Red Bulls, New England.
With Lodeiro back and presumably fresh as a daisy for another MLS Cup hunt, the Sounders have three Best XI-caliber players to anchor their midfield. No other club can match that. Defensive midfielder Joao Paulo carried tons of extra weight while Lodeiro was out. Cristian Roldan plays exactly like a captain should, capable of making any kind of play when it's needed. That enviable trio gets plenty of support from the wily Kelyn Rowe and a few energetic youngsters learning on the job.
This Union crew shouldn't be called a midfield, they should be called a swarm. They come at you hard from all directions, in all directions and with a wide array of skills. There's plenty of bite on offer from Jose Martinez, Leon Flach and Alejandro Bedoya. Guys like Jamiro Monteiro, Daniel Gazdag and Paxten Aaronson bring the flash. It's a deep corps that Jim Curtin can arrange in a variety of ways, and no matter who starts there's always impact available from off the bench.
If you're wondering how the Loons have managed a winning record despite wastefulness up front and untimely mistakes at the back, look no further. Their midfield is overloaded with experience and verve. Few clubs can match the one-two punch of Osvaldo Alonso and Wil Trapp at base camp, and only Supporters' Shield winners New England have a chance creator as good as Emanuel Reynoso. Add in Hassani Dotson's motor, and the ability to bring tone-setters like Jan Gregus and Jacori Hayes off the bench, and you darn near have enough midfield for two winning sides.
Close but not quite: Nashville, New York City FC, Colorado, Vancouver, Portland.
Take the Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner (yes, I'm counting Carles Gil as more of an interior winger than a midfielder), add in a dash of one of the league's scariest flank threats (Tajon Buchanan) and blend it with a double dose of strike power (gunner Gustavo Bou and target master Adam Buksa). That tasty little recipe fueled the MLS-leading Revs offense and one that outdid its xG by nearly nine goals. That quartet accounted for multiple goals (14 times this season) twice as often as they were held off the scoreboard (seven times). And Teal Bunbury and Arnor Traustason are productive supplemental pieces.
Even if Alan Pulido was still in recovery bay from his knee surgery, this attack collective would only drop one spot. That's because bookend terrors Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi are so disruptive and fruitful that Sporting KC still put up 20 goals in the 13 games their snazzy DP striker missed this season. That's a goal rate that would have placed them 10th out of 27 teams. Pulido returned to training last week. That means absolute handful Khiry Shelton gets to come off the pine to work tiring defenders in circles, which just opens lanes for Russell and Salloi.
Since Sebastian Blanco firmly parked his brilliance back in the Timbers' lineup in late August, the team has struck for 29 goals in 13 games (and they weren't exactly toothless before then). Gio Savarese also has a pair of double-digit scorers in Dairon Asprilla and Felipe Mora, a catch-me-if-you-can buzzer in Yimmi Chara and pure strike efficiency off the pine in Jaroslaw Niezgoda. In 2021, only New England had a better goal-per-shot ratio.
Close but not quite: Seattle, Orlando, Atlanta, Salt Lake.