The postseason is nearly here, intensifying the spotlight on several players on the 12 teams remaining in the 2018 MLS Cup chase that need to lead by example if their club is to succeed.
The Knockout Round of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs begins on Wednesday, putting eight of the teams still in with a shot at championship glory on stage. Stars will be on the spot, naturally, but they're not the only ones who can key a Conference Semifinal berth with an influential midweek showing.
Starting with the East matchups, we tabbed one guy from each squad who can greatly increase his side's knockout victory chances with a big-game display.
Okay, so maybe the real New York City FC have come back from the reportedly demised with the fitness returns of midfield engines Yangel Herrera and Maxi Moralez. The key duo now must turn around quickly for a rematch against a hard-nosed Philly midfield. It's a lot to ask, and that's where Ring comes in.
If there's anyone on the field who can make life easier on Herrera and Moralez, it's the NYCFC defensive midfielder. With his penchant for hard challenges and possession support, Ring can effectively free up his his midfield mates by reducing their dirty-work load. If that happens, NYCFC will like their chances of passing a playoff round for the first time.
Even if the Philadephia Union are due a better performance in front of him for their second straight road crack at NYCFC, it should be no secret that Blake will be battling a lot of trends. He's lost all three of his previous starts at Yankee Stadium, where the home team have lost just once this year. Then there's always the specter of penalties, a mano-a-mano duel the Union goalkeeper has lost 13 of 15 times during his MLS career.
Even while they struggled through fall, NYCFC still created chances. They almost always do. Any script that ends with the Union escaping from New York victorious for the first time should include a couple of key scenes with Blake robbing the hosts along the way.
This probably comes off as the most "Duh!" pick of the bunch, but I don't care. We all can agree that Columbus is a system team, and that a way to beat a system team is to disrupt that system. No D.C. United player, and few in the league, can throw an opponent's entire plan a kilter like Acosta.
He can fan out to the left, pinning Harrison Afful back. He can break lines in the inside channels, stretching defenders into a panic mode. He can force Artur and Wil Trapp out of their favorite pressure valve sweet spots, and then find patches to run in as well as anyone. And, yes, obviously Acosta also has nine goals and as many assists during the Black-and-Red's 11-1-1 Audi Field run while acting as the main igniter for Wayne Rooney's game. That stuff, too.
Whoever partners with Jonathan Mensah
It could be Lalas Abubukar or it could be Josh Williams. Heck, it could be Gaston Sauro. We just don't know given all the recent rotation in the central defense spot next to the Crew SC No. 4 shirt. What we do know is it's a pressure assignment.
They'll need avoid letting Rooney drag them out of position, while keeping an eye out for all the Acosta, Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola area raids sure to come from all angles. Columbus aren't so likely to win a goal-fest in the capital, so the longer they can keep the game scoreless, the better their Audi Field upset chances become. Whoever it may be, the guy next to Mensah will be on the spot.
Of course, we can talk about Carlos Vela and each of his attack running mates 'til the cows come home. That's too easy. And with LAFC's offense, it's often all about traffic direction out of midfield, the pass before the pass. Cue Feilhaber, a veteran who can safely shuttle LAFC through central park in this one.
Bob Bradley's boys will not want to get bogged down in a midfield tussle with Real Salt Lake. They want to play in the opponent's end as much as possible. If Feilhaber can help slow down the visitors through the middle, and then send LAFC string pullers Vela and Lee Nguyen into dangerous final third positions, the expansion standouts can make the most of the first playoff tilt in club history.
For RSL to have any chance of getting past LAFC, they need to keep up. The Banc of California crew have scored multiple goals in 11 of their 17 home games, only being shut out there twice. Salt Lake's offense can go missing from time to time, especially on the road, but when Rusnak is on they produce plenty.
The problem is, Rusnak hasn't made the score sheet in his last five outings, in part simply because he's not getting many shots off. When the playmaker finds space to fire, it creates a threat that draws attention away from RSL's wily selection of area raiders whether he scores or not. Against an LAFC team that can invite trouble in Zone 14, Rusnak's shot from the top of the box should be worrisome. After all, dating back to last season, they've won 12 of the last 13 times he grabbed a goal.
Since arriving from Colorado this summer, Badji has managed but two goals in 10 appearances. Accordingly, FC Dallas have gone 2-5-3 in his outings. Truthfully, though, this pick may be less about the forward coming correct than it is about Dallas finding different ways to unlock his scoring potential without a primary playmaking type on the field.
That will be even tougher than usual because Knockout Round sees the Texans matched up with the Portland Timbers, a team that wants the ball even less than they do. If it was June, one could just wait for it all to click on the counter, but the regular season is done. The time for Dallas to get Badji loose is now.
As a road team, the 2018 Timbers, well... they're an excellent home team. Still, Knockout Round hosts Dallas have become rather goal-shy of late, so Portland coach Giovanni Savarese might find this a perfect occasion for his boys to accomplish just their second away win since June.
A bit of offense will go a long way toward Portland making it happen. And with four goals and five assists in his last six starts, Blanco has at least temporarily surpassed Diego Valeri as the guy the Timbers look to when they need a big play. His first MLS postseason start will require more of that productive wizardry around the area.