Dairon Asprilla - Portland Timbers - against Stefan Frei (foreground)
USA Today Sports

Four unlikely Conference Championship heroes for the MLS Playoffs

Stars hog the spotlight in the postseason, for good reason. Heroes rise when the best teams collide.

Much has been written and spoken about Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron; Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kaku; Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell; Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. But, stars don't have a monopoly on postseason moments: Rodney Wallace scored the Portland Timbers' game-winner in MLS Cup Final 2015; Benoit Cheyrou and Tosaint Ricketts each came off the bench to score in extra time and send Toronto FC to 2016 MLS Cup Final. 

On Sunday, Atlanta United host the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS) before the Timbers welcome Sporting Kansas City (7:30 pm ET | FS1, Fox Deportes, TSN, TVAS) for Leg 1 of their Conference Championship. 

Who are some unlikely heroes this weekend and Thursday for the return legs?

Dairon Asprilla

Dairon Asprilla celebrates a goal | USA Today Sports

Dairon Asprilla lives for the postseason.

Statically one of the league's least-efficient regular-season goalscorers, Asprilla has not found similar tribulations in the postseason. During his regular-season MLS career, Asprilla has 5 goals and 6 assists in 3,579 minutes, good for a goal or assist every 325.36 minutes (roughly 3 1/2 games). In the playoffs, Asprilla has 3 goals and 4 assists in 563 minutes, or a goal or assist per 80.4 minutes. By comparison, MVP finalist Almiron averaged a goal or assist every 106.1 minutes. 

Asprilla is likely to start on the bench, but should feature in the second half. 

Krisztian Nemeth

Krisztian Nemeth sprints | USA Today Sports

When Krisztian Nemeth returned to SKC in August, most assumed a prompt return to form for the Hungarian international. But, compatriot Salloi and Scotland international Russell continued to dazzle on the wings while the tandem of Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton formed a fantastic combo at center forward. Nemeth was an unused sub in both legs of their 5-3 aggregate win over Real Salt Lake.

But with Rubio suspended, Nemeth might be next in line to make an impact off the bench against Portland. In his second game back with the team in August, he came off the bench in a 3-0 SKC win over the Timbers and contributed an assist. Peter Vermes will hope for more of the same if he turns to Nemeth on Sunday.

Derrick Etienne Jr.

Derrick Etienne Jr. celebrates a goal | USA Today Sports

Derrick Etienne Jr. played hero for the Red Bulls on MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T, scoring the Supporters' Shield-winning goal over Orlando City SC. He hasn't started in the two playoff games since, with Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl both in great form, but entered off the bench both which is par for the course for his 2018 season. While he only started 9 games, he appeared in 30, underlying his importance to the team.

"Haitian Messi", as supporters at Red Bull Arena love to call him, turns 22-years-old on Sunday. What better birthday celebration than a goal or assist in front of 70,000 fans at the Benz?  

Ezequiel Barco

Ezequiel Barco dribbles | USA Today Sports

When Ezequiel Barco was signed before the season, conventional wisdom would have suggested he'd be lining up next to Almiron in the starting XI for Atlanta's playoff games. Surely a player of his pedigree, a player who started both legs of the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final, would be a definite starter in the playoffs for Atlanta?

Yet the freshly minted 19-year-old has struggled to lock down an impactful starting role, and came off the bench in both legs against NYCFC, though neither game state really called for him to shine. Against the Red Bulls, that may well be different, especially in the first leg where Atlanta would love to bring an advantage to Red Bull Arena for Leg 2. Barco will have a part to play in the Conference Championship, for sure.

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