The first kick of Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs is fast approaching, and there will be plenty of talk before, during and after the do-or-die games on tap about the league's top stars.
There's nothing wrong with that, but this is also a time for players that start the playoffs as supporting actors to give performances that transform them into marquee men at the snap of a finger. Who could potentially raise their MLS profile with a star turn? We've got all sorts of ideas for your perusal.
Much was expected of the man they call "Taty" after his 11-goal output last season, but it looked very much like a breakout false start after he went MIA on the score sheet through his first 15 league outings this term (in all fairness, Castellanos did bag a nifty stand-up winner in NYCFC's MLS Is Back defeat of Toronto FC).
Then, just when it seemed like injuries to the attack might trash New York City FC's postseason ambitions, the 22-year-old essentially flipped a switch. Castellanos (who easily leads the league in shots on goal per 90 minutes) has six goals and three helpers in the last seven games, and his sudden surge in form has renewed the club's hopes of getting something out of a tough season.
When Sebastian Blanco was lost for the season in early September, a lot of observers understandably wrote off the Timbers' chances of completing a 2020 double in the playoffs. Two things in particular happened to renew that hope, and one was quite predictable: Diego Valeri picked up a lot of his injured pal's slack.
The other was a production explosion from Chara that fewer people saw coming. When Blanco went down on Sept. 6, Diego's little brother was starting to reek of a DP bust. Since then, however, Yimmi has four goals and seven assists in 921 minutes. Prior to Blanco's injury, he accounted for 1.5 shot-creating actions per game; after, he's blown that average up to 3.7, with nearly all of them coming in the run of play. The stage is set for him to cement star status.
This entry may as well carry an asterisk, as it's really a conditional pick. Philadelphia star netminder Andre Blake suffered a hand fracture just three weeks ago, but Union boss Jim Curtin says the MVP finalist could return to full training on Tuesday.
Hmm. Color me skeptical that Blake will be ready so quickly. If he can't go when the Supporters' Shield winners begin their MLS Cup hunt, the job of walking the line probably falls to Freese, a 22-year-old Homegrown with seven pro games under his belt. If last weekend's Shield-clinching shutout win is any indication, he looks up to the task.
This is a funny case. In terms of performance, the winger has already properly blossomed for Inter Miami. Without his golazos, set-up work, play driving and set piece delivery, this team doesn't get anywhere near the postseason. And yet, I feel like nobody outside of Dade County has noticed enough.
I was stunned to see that Morgan did not net a single Team of the Week nod (though, to be fair, he made the "bench" five times). Only Alejandro Pozuelo created more chances this season and only Cristian Pavon carried the ball for more progressive yardage (as in toward goal). Now the playoffs have arrived, and it will be impossible to overlook the Scottish playmaker is he steers the Herons on a surprise run.
Confession time: Like esteemed colleague Matt Doyle, I can't help but wonder if Sporting KC's recent tidiness at the back is a mirage. Yeah, they closed with three straight clean sheets, but two of the victims were FC Cincinnati (the least potent team in MLS) and Real Salt Lake (the weakest attack in the West).
Counting their MLS Is Back ledger, Sporting have conceded multiple goals in five of 12 games against playoff teams (which is obviously all they will face from here on out). Their defense is also in a transition phase, and Puncec has quietly taken over as the new back line marshal. If the regular season West champs can survive that conference's playoff battle royale, chances are the Croatian will have been notably large and in charge.
It would have been very easy to pick out a player that is set to cover for one of Minnesota's many injury/international absences for at least the first round, especially those at the back half of the formation. Guys like Bakaye Dibassy, Hassani Dotson and Dayne St. Clair would all make for fine choices in this list.
However, I'm going to go another way with it. Much was made of it when Reynoso joined the Loons in early September, but he hasn't gained much press since then. And that's despite chalking up seven assists in just 826 minutes, topping the entire league in key passes per 90 and leading a banged-up team on a 4-0-4 closing kick. Folks love to say that defense wins championships, but in MLS, it's more accurate to say that it's string-pullers who win playoff games.
Even as they moved into contention for a playoff invite down the stretch, a great deal was not expected from Nashville SC. That was largely due to a stifling defense, people would say, and they were largely correct. At the same time, the expansion side's offense started to come to life, and no one exemplified that development more than Daniel Rios.
The Mexican forward had been a deadly strike star for Nashville's USL iteration, but it took him 11 games to find an MLS net. Once he did, things changed for the 25-year-old. Rios has now netted four goals in his last 417 minutes of action, and three of them gave the Music City crew a lead to protect. If he keeps it up, they become a very dangerous underdog and his MLS profile soars.