We’re in crunch time, folks.
Anywhere from three to five regular-season games remain for each team, which means they’re scratching and clawing to get above the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs line in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference.
This raises an important question: Who needs to step up to get their team into the postseason? I’ve picked out some of the most influential players who could shape fortunes in the buildup to Decision Day on Oct. 21. They’re all on teams that are either below the playoff line or fighting to stay above it.
He’s a lot further down the scouting report now than he was a couple of months ago, but DeAndre Yedlin still has a key role to play for Tata Martino’s team. Now while opposing defenses are focused on trying to slow down Lionel Messi in the right half-space (when he’s available) or Sergio Busquets at the base of midfield, they also have to worry about Miami’s overlapping outside backs. Jordi Alba will capture plenty of attention on the left, leaving Yedlin an opportunity to catch teams off guard on the right.
The natural response to defending Inter Miami at this point is to stack numbers centrally and force their wide players to beat you. As one of those wide players (and one of the most direct ones at that), Yedlin’s ability to break the opposing backline and provide quality service could provide Miami that extra 1% that gets them over the line.
It was all supposed to come together for NYCFC after the Secondary Transfer Window. They finally had a No. 9 in Mounsef Bakrar and they even brought back Maxi Moralez to take some of the playmaking burden off of Santiago Rodríguez in attacking midfield.
Unfortunately for NYCFC, things haven’t gone according to plan.
They’re sitting ninth in the East and Moralez suffered a season-ending knee injury, meaning that playmaking burden is back to sitting on Rodríguez's shoulders. The 23-year-old Uruguayan’s underlying numbers are down this year, both in terms of xG and xA. But Rodríguez is still an incredibly smooth, crafty player in the final third. If there was ever a time to take the next step as a primary playmaker, this is it. New York City’s playoff hopes may depend on it.
D.C. United need to squeeze some juice out of Gabriel Pirani. The Brazilian midfielder, acquired this summer on loan from Santos FC with a purchase option, is functioning at least partially as a Taxi Fountas replacement.
Pirani plays a little deeper than Fountas tended to for coach Wayne Rooney, but the 21-year-old still gets into central spaces in the final third and has chances to influence D.C.’s attacking play. The problem? Pirani hasn’t created a ton of chances, either for himself or for his teammates, since arriving in MLS. He’s averaging just 0.18 non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minutes this season, according to FBref, which puts him well down the list even on the Black-and-Red’s roster.
Getting even a little more out of Pirani, particularly feeding Christian Benteke, could change the game for D.C. as they look to get back above the line in their remaining three matches.
The Fire are 12th in the East, averaging fewer goals than all but five teams in MLS. Excluding own goals, they’ve scored just 1.03 goals per game this year and had been shut out in five straight games heading into a 2-2 draw with New England over the weekend. Chicago don’t create many chances – they’re averaging just 1.04 xG per game, according to American Soccer Analysis. Between the xG and the actual goals, things are bleak in the Fire’s attack.
If they’re going to climb above the playoff line, Kamara may have to put away a few half chances. He’s on 144 career goals, one behind Landon Donovan for second in the MLS all-time leaderboard.
In mid-September, Sporting Kansas City signed Alan Pulido to a new Designated Player contract. After arriving in MLS in 2020 as their club-record signing, the Mexican striker is now signed through 2026.
While Pulido has missed nearly 50 games due to injury over the last few seasons, he’s been productive when healthy by averaging 0.56 goals per 90 during his time with SKC. With Kansas City fighting for a playoff spot – they’re 10th in the West, two points off the pace – they’re going to need their DP No. 9 to perform like a DP No. 9.
Moments like this, when you’re fighting for postseason action, will help us gauge whether SKC’s choice to re-sign Pulido was a smart one. He’s got a fighter’s chance in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, too, with 13g/3a in 25 games.
Fresh off a first-ever call-up to Argentina’s senior national team, Alan Velasco has a chance to prove he’s ready to take the next step in MLS.
Since signing for FC Dallas at the beginning of last year, the 21-year-old attacker has shown plenty of potential. He’s clearly skilled on the ball, landing in the 82nd percentile in successful take-ons among attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS last year and the 91st in that same category this year. But what Velasco has lacked is the final product: this year, he’s in just the 18th percentile among his positional peers in non-penalty xG+xA per 90, with 0.23.
The LA Galaxy’s injury luck has been absolutely rotten this year. Head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney’s lack of options at the base of midfield and across his backline puts real pressure on Edwin Cerrillo, who arrived from FC Dallas via a trade in early August, to elevate playoff hopes. Cerrillo has flaws as a No. 6, but he brings energy and defensive discipline to the Galaxy’s lineup.
Since Vanney wants his team to play with the ball and push numbers high up the field early and often, Cerrillo will continue to be busy until LA’s season ends. If he’s sharp and effective defensively, the Galaxy could hop above the playoff line to keep their season going a while longer.