We're one-and-a-half rounds into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, and with a few surprising results, we're finding out which MLSers have that extra boost of ice-cold clutch running through the nervous system. Matteo Mancosu, welcome to the club:
That game-deciding goal, which put the Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls into a hole heading into Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal, was merely the latest in a string of huge strikes by the Italian import. The oh-so-sweet assist came from Marco Donadel, who kicks off this very unofficial, mind-of-one-man list of …
Role Players Most Likely to Make a Difference
Montreal Impact-New York Red Bulls
MTL leads, 1-0, on aggregate goals
Midfielder, Montreal Impact
Serie A veteran Marco Donadel put up four assists in an injury-plagued second MLS season, having made 21 appearances (18 starts) after 25 and 24 in 2015, but his defensive work rate is nuts: Sunday’s line included two tackles, a block, six interceptions, three clearances and eight recoveries. Yet his ability to pick apart defenses on the counter – as the Red Bulls witnessed Sunday – is as likely as anything to produce a series-defining moment for Montreal. It might have already happened.
Alex Muyl/Gonzalo Veron
Midfielders, New York Red Bulls
Alex Muyl claimed the RBNY right wing for his own with a relentless two-way work rate, crowding the display of every Opta boxscore he enters. On his game – as he's been much of the year – Muyl manages to muck it up in the middle of whatever action there exists, so don't be surprised if he's onscreen whenever the Red Bulls break through; they just need it to come in Sunday's Leg 2. And though Gonzalo Veron has struggled to earn consistent playing time, he's shown flashes of the ability that earned him the Designated Player contract coming over from San Lorenzo, most notably setting up Omer Damari (and BWP's rebound) for a near-equalizer late in stoppage time against Montreal.
Toronto FC-New York City FC
TOR Leads, 2-0
Midfielder, Toronto FC
It took a full 15 days for Toronto FC's loan acquisition of Armando Cooper to clear, and then until the Reds' last three games that Greg Vanney hit on the 3-5-2 formation that simultaneously unleashed every aspect of his awesomely-talented squad. Cooper has proven a Grade-A pest (ask David Villa), notably managing to draw six fouls against NYCFC on Sunday. He's been in the thick of it for TFC of late, and you can expect him to be heavily involved in their success – or sparring – the rest of the way.
Midfielder, New York City FC
This is the space we'd normally commit to that TommyMac life, but Patrick Vieira surprised everybody with an all-defense, all-day lineup against Toronto FC, and thusly Steven Mendoza gets the shoulder tap. Acquired from Corinthians (Brazil) on loan prior to the season, the Colombian forward made 24 appearances – but just 10 starts – for NYC, scoring three goals in the team’s final eight regular-season games. With NYC trailing as they head home, Mendoza’s high ceiling on the attack likely has Vieira hoping he can crack open Toronto’s back line.
Seattle Sounders-FC Dallas
SEA Leads, 3-0
Midfielder, Seattle Sounders
With a nod to "Mr. Sounder" Zach Scott – who might be a much bigger factor than anticipated if Roman Torres misses extended time with the hamstring injury that kept him out of Leg 1 – this spot belongs to University of Washington product Cristian Roldan. The young sir has established himself as an every-game starter in this second MLS season, earning 24 Under 24 recognition. Sure, most of his statistical production has come since July 31, but you can only play with the players on the roster, ha. Look for Roldan to continue facilitating as he further develops that nascent playmaking ability.
Forward, FC Dallas
Down 3-0 to Seattle after the opener of their Western Conference Semifinal, FC Dallas is going to be chasing goals throughout Sunday’s home leg, and you can expect Tesho Akindele to make an appearance – or start – since he’s already shown he can come through with a clutch strike, having done so against the Sounders last year. The Canada international has scored at least five times in each of three MLS seasons, and seems a likely candidate to find the back of the net for a third straight postseason. If he doesn’t, it likely means the US treble remains but a dream.
LA Galaxy-Colorado Rapids
LA Leads, 1-0
Baggio Husidic/Sebastian Lletget
Midfielders, LA Galaxy
The stars draw the obvious attention in LA, and Emmanuel Boateng already had his breakout (word to the Knockouts), so it’s two a pair of midfielders we turn: “Da Boy” and Baggio. Sebastian Lletget has made more starts, 23 to 16, but each player appeared in nearly all of the Galaxy’s games. Lletget is more likely to contribute the series-sealing strike or assist, and his injury-triggered move to the middle could end up looking like Nagbe v2.0 if LA’s run extends much further. Baggio Husidic’s veteran presence has manifested in a staggering show of possession through two playoff starts, completing all but four of 127 passes (96.9%) – his highest-attempt, most-accurate individual performances of the season. If he does that again, it’s a sign that Colorado couldn’t get anything going on their way out of this surprise return visit to the postseason.
Forward, Colorado Rapids
Dominique Badji didn’t lock down his starting spot until August, but forced head coach Pablo Mastroeni to work the pairings around him from that point forward, finishing the regular season in strong form: four goals and three assists in the Rapids’ final eight games. It’s Shkelzen Gashi and Kevin Doyle who shoulder the scoring pressure, which allows Badji to operate in the shadows, and if he speeds into daylight, it could provide the break Colorado needs to push past LA.