Voices: Greg Seltzer

Ten players who will define the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs race

Every time the weather turns nippy, the stakes raise with every game and certain players emerge (for better or worse) as pivotal to important outcomes.

This is our usual attempt to pick out the guys who will have an outsized say in how the tables stand when the final Decision Day whistle blows.

There's a tangled web of Audi MLS Cup Playoff placement battles in both conferences set to go down the rest of the way, so there will be plenty of opportunity for the players listed below to drive their team's fortune and dampen that of opponents.

I'll bet you thought I'd tab Josef Martinez as the Atlanta United choice, huh? Nobody could argue with that, but just imagine how hot the Five Stripes would get if Luiz Araujo started turning all his ball wizardry into consistent goals and assists. And then imagine how much more room Josef would get with a genuine goal threat raiding from the right. There are some leaky left sides remaining on their schedule, so I'm thinking the breakout is coming.

Now we go with the obvious pick. It's no great wonder Daryl Dike went the full 90 three straight times for the first time all season, and he scores in all three games. He basically scored the Purple Lions out of a slump, with the sinister last-gasp header you see below as his final act. Even beyond the goals, he taxes defenses, which takes a little weight off of certain recovering/veteran teammates who may have less than full energy tanks. At this point in the season, that benefit counts extra.

Some folks may well have already buried the Red Bulls in their view of the playoff race, and that's fine. However you feel about their postseason chances, they will have plenty of say in how it goes. That's because all seven of their games are lined up to have serious table finish implications. And hey, remember when Fabio was bagging the odd sexy goal and setting up loads of looks for teammates, and the Red Bulls were actually a bit scary? If he can shake off a calf knock over the international break and pick up where he left off in his last two outings, they can be plenty scary again.

I recently discussed how the summer catch makes everything the Whitecaps love to do run even better. Though not the same type of playmaker, Ryan Gauld is everything this club has missed in attack since Alphonso Davies ran BC Place. He encountered his first end-production bump in the MLS road this month but rebounded with a bang by dipping his hand in all three goals this past weekend.

Yeah, this one's rather obvious. When Chicharito was banging home a goal per game early in the year, the Galaxy looked more like a team with a plan. They coalesced around the veteran's marksmanship. Since his return from injury in September, LA have been searching for that early-season mojo and the goals have been harder to come by. With four playoff spot holders left to play, now would be the time to get Chicharito, and the defense, back on track.

The boys from Montréal have impressed a lot of people with their pluck this season. Amid the chaos (some tactically intentional), Djordje Mihailovic is the one who settles the side to create chances. That's something the team had been missing. The offseason pick-up's vision has made the club more consistently potent, and thus harder to handle. Out of the 18 times this season he's teed up three or more shots for teammates, Montréal have suffered just four losses. That's something the four playoff racers left on their schedule should think about.

We're down to the time when must-win games become the norm. Since Kacper Przybylko arrived in Philly, they're 19-3-6 when he scores. You do the math. A 3-0-1 run sparked by the Polish striker has given the Union a shot at second place in the East. At the same time, they're still not safe from falling all the way out of the top seven. The crunch-time play of Przybylko will play a big part in deciding where they finish on that wide spectrum.

We've seen the Minnesota United trickster do it before, so imagining a timeline where he turns red-hot down the stretch is no, well, stretch. Emanuel Reynoso is actually above most of his per-90 playmaking numbers from last season, but transferring that good play to the boxscore hasn't always happened. The assortment of playoff race figures (in both conferences, no less) must try keeping him from shifting into top gear again this autumn.

The LAFC winger did a lot of exciting things when he came back from a loan stint in Spain, but then he jetted off for three Conmebol World Cup Qualifying starts in eight days. The season's second return of Brian Rodriguez has gone a lot quieter. Of course, now he's off with Uruguay again. If this next walk back in the Banc door goes third verse same as the first, LAFC may have enough fuel to race across the playoff line. If not, five teams in the Western scramble get easier tasks.

We could always go with Damir Kreilach and it would never be wrong. It almost goes without saying, really, so I'll tip another name. It's been a redemption year for Albert Rusnak, who's back driving the Real Salt Lake offense after a bumpy 2020. When he's on, the Rio Tinto bunch can run with the big boys. Doing precisely that may be needed to book a playoff spot, as they still have games with Colorado, Portland and Sporting KC (their last two foes of the season).