We're all set to kick off the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, which means greater pressure and higher stakes adding up to hotter spotlights.
Which players will take advantage of that postseason glare to reach a new level of league stardom? That's exactly the question we're aiming to provide potential answers for.
Before we meet our potentially magnificent seven, let's give a nod to the honorable mentions: Brendan Aaronson, Jeremy Ebobisse, Brian Rodriguez, Lucas Rodriguez and Jefferson Savarino.
Blessed with enough talent to run the Atlanta United engine room and then finish plays off in style, Barco was twice as good in his second MLS season playing about half the minutes of his rookie campaign. As the Five Stripes have gone 9-2-1 when he notches a goal or an assist, now would be a fine time for a kid on an upward trajectory to enjoy a true offensive breakout. If he can accomplish that, wresting the crown away from A-Town becomes infinitely more tricky.
GOAL: Ezequiel Barco nabs a brace with a golazo
The handy NYCFC attacker bagged 11 goals (including four winners) to go with seven helpers this term... but did anyone outside the Bronx actually notice? Perhaps that's why he's able to shed attention from defenders in and around the area so easily. If Castellanos heats up, the resulting gravity opens room for guys like Heber and Alexandru Mitrita to be even more dangerous.
One could quite easily tab Savarino or even Albert Rusnak as the guy who can jump to the next level with a big playoff showing. However, I'm going to go with Real Salt Lake's main man in defense. This term, RSL were 14-6-3 with a 0.85 goals-against-average when Glad played and 2-7-2, allowing a shade over two goals per game, when he didn't. To make any sort of playoff run, they're going to need him to corral some of the league's scariest attackers.
The teen traffic director starred during FC Dallas' early-season burst, but they slipped big time when an injury and international duty kept him out or seven spring games. They predictably picked the pace back up when Pomykal returned, but he wasn't quite as influential during the stretch drive. If the youngster can supplement his two-way work rate with some offensive playmaking, the Texans will have a chance to make some unexpected noise.
It's great that Minnesota have rebuilt their team defense. That newfound stinginess makes them capable of advancing from the tough half of the West Bracket, but someone still needs to spark their inconsistent attack. This shines a light on Toye, who was quiet over the final month of the regular season but has the ability to wear out defenders and conjure a big goal (including U.S. Open Cup play, he has five winners since mid-June).
I have no earthly idea how the Revs shot-stopper could be left off the list of Goalkeeper of the Year finalists, but we're past that now. He could go take it out on the East bracket, though. Turner quite arguably pulled off more shocking saves than any other 'keeper in the league this season to consistently bail out his defense. He finished second in save percentage, and tops in goals allowed-expected goals against.
There's no getting around it: Bradley Wright-Phillips seemingly started heading down the far side of the hill directly following last September's triple-rally hat trick at D.C. United. That means the big Red Bulls goal onus has shifted to White. Before injuring an ankle in August, the 23-year-old looked up to the task, striking in six of his last nine starts. He's back now, just in time to try on BWP's old postseason cape.