Sunday brought nine consecutive hours of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, enough for heroes to emerge – and not just those dedicated souls who gamely took in all 360-plus minutes of match action. In honor of the hours, here are nine of the top performers in Leg 1 of the Conference Semifinals:
Outside of that, Valenueza was strong in defense as well as in possession against the Red Bulls. Alex Muyl never got anything going down the left flank he deputized, nor did Andreas Ivan in his cameo off the bench.
The 20-year-old Valenzuela led Columbus in touches (76), key passes (2) and final-third entries (12). Valenzuela played vertically for Crew SC and was invaluable to his side taking a 1-0 aggregate lead to Red Bull Arena.
You know who else was invaluable for Columbus? Higuain. Duh.
After a two-goal effort in their Knockout Round triumph over D.C. United, it was always going to be a difficult turnaround for Higuain. He played 90 minutes on Decision Day a week ago, which marked only the second time he completed 90 minutes since June.
No other player wearing a Crew SC jersey could have created that goal. The vision, audacity, subtlety and -- of course, ability -- to pull that off is unmatched.
Diego Valeri / Sebastian Blanco
It might be cheating to lump them together, but, it'd be unfair to separate their performances.
They each had a moment of pure class: Diego Valeri's outside-of-the-foot through ball assist to Jeremy Ebobisse and Blanco's game-winning goal, of which he elected not to go down for what would have more than likely been a penalty, twisting Kelvin Leerdam before firing into the bottom corner.
Valeri has had a hand in each of the Timbers' four goals over their first two playoff matches. He scored both goals in the Knockout Round then picked up an assist, plus forced the loose ball that Blanco picked up and scored on Sunday.
Despite losing in Leg 1 to the Timbers, the Seattle Sounders have to be feeling pretty good, all things considered. They were forced into first-half substitutions of key players Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall due to injury and saw an early 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 halftime deficit. Yet a 1-0 win at CenturyLink on Thursday would do put them through to the Conference Championship. That's not a bad spot to be in.
It could have been worse, if not for Stefan Frei.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
NYCFC didn't have a single shot on target against Atlanta United at home. For all the attention that focuses on ATL's high-flying offense, they leaned on their defense en route to a crucial 1-0 road victory against the Cityzens. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who tallied 4 tackles, 6 clearances and 2 interceptions, helped suppress David Villa, Maxi Moralez & Co.
LGP racked up a game-high six fouls (of 39 total), and escaped without being shown the yellow.
Much of what applies for Gonzalez Pirez applies for Eric Remedi, who, alongside Jeff Larentowicz, made the center of the pitch impregnable for NYCFC. The attacks were forced down the flanks, especially in the second half.
Remidi made more ball recoveries (14) than anyone on the pitch and did so after picking up a 7th-minute yellow card.
Also: Remedi scored the game's only goal, which happens to be the first of his five-year professional career! Yet the goal was just a bonus. Remedi was a standout player for the work that can go unnoticed in the midfield.
An absolute banger.
Real Salt Lake playmaker Albert Rusnak started this combination with Damir Kreilach by offering a subtle hip shimmy, then a smart space-finding run off his first touch and finally a piercing arrow straight into the back of the net. It was one of those goals that make you audibly go "oooooOOOHHHHHH!!"
He's suspended for Leg 2 due to yellow-card accumulation; how much will that hurt RSL's chances of advancing?
Within a minute of coming on, forward Diego Rubio made his mark on the match. He expertly finished from 20 yards, giving SKC a huge away goal to take back with them to Children's Mercy Park.
It was entirely critical as SKC held less and less of the ball as the game wore on, finishing at just 33.5 percent and didn't really have a big chance after his goal. That said, heading back home at 1-1 feels a lot better than 1-0.