It's nearly time for the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoff to kick off, which means head coaches and fans alike from all 18 clubs in the running for MLS Cup will be looking to their most integral players for championship-caliber performances.
Picking out a single guy from each team that needs to be at his best for his side to make a deep run is no easy feat, but it's precisely the exercise we're here to undertake. Some of these spotlight players will be the ones widely thought of as their club's biggest stars. Others will be sneakier picks whose importance can often be overlooked. All of them will be counted on to push their teams toward glory.
Philadelphia Union - Kacper Przybylko
At the end of September, I wrote that the Union would need Sergio Santos to start finding the net instead of merely threatening if they wanted to take home the Supporters' Shield. Six home-stretch goals from the Brazilian later, Philly has that shiny prize in its trophy case. Now the guy they need to heat up is strike partner Kacper Przybylko, who hasn't hit for a run-of-play goal in his last 26 shots across 11 games. If the big man rediscovers his shooting touch, they might just be unstoppable in pursuit of a double.
Toronto FC - Nick DeLeon
Fun fact: The Reds have won six straight games that featured Nick DeLeon's name on the score sheet in some manner. With so many fitness question marks in their attack stable, his ability to pitch in with some timely offense becomes even more important. We saw the difference he can make during last year's playoff run, when he bagged the winner at Atlanta United to send Toronto FC to MLS Cup.
Columbus Crew SC - Aboubacar Keita/Josh Williams
Back when the Crew were dominating the league, it was mainly due to their defense starving all comers of good looks in front of goal. Through 14 games, opponents had only managed a measly 14 expected goals. In just the last nine games, Columbus foes have racked up 16 expected goals, or nearly double the total per game.
The number of chances they're allowing has increased, and those chances are coming from much more dangerous locations. Even in their big Nov. 1 win over Philadelphia, the Crew permitted eight shots from the prime real estate directly in front of overworked net octopus Eloy Room. This devolution isn't all on the backline, but the revolving door next to Jonathan Mensah has become a concern. Whichever one of Aboubacar Keita or Josh Williams gets the nod needs to match Mensah's level for the team to contend for the crown.
Orlando City SC - Daryl Dike
For me, the Lions are first and foremost a true team. With the possible exception of Nani, they don't have any top-level superstars but they do have a lot of very solid players and everyone understands their job. The thing about such "more than the sum of their parts" outfits is they tend to fall short in the postseason when the striker isn't regularly translating the solid team play behind him into goals. Therefore, as long as Daryl Dike keeps performing like a proper cobra head, Orlando City are a genuine title threat in my book.
New York City FC - Maxi Moralez
Let's not be coy: While NYCFC's back six (Alex Ring, the backline and 'keeper Sean Johnson) is among the best in the league, the attack has been shredded by injuries and the defection of Alexandru Mitrita just when he was heating up. Bottom line: The Cityzens will probably go about as far as set-up master Maxi Moralez can take them.
New York Red Bulls - Aaron Long
The Red Bulls' high press has gradually faded from view over the past two seasons, and this has helped dull the impact of offense drivers Kaku and Daniel Royer. It may sound like I'm on the way to picking an attacker as this team's essential performer, but it's actually my way of noting that the Big Apple bunch's margin for error has shrunk. They can no longer simply outgun good teams when the mood strikes. Meanwhile, the defense has run very hot-and-cold this season, and that has to stop if they're going anywhere in the playoffs. This is my long-winded way of say Bradley Carnell and friends will need Aaron Long to take over games from the back like he used to do. Can he? I don't know, but opening foe Columbus will offer a telling test.
Nashville SC - Randall Leal
We know the Tennessee kids tend to keep games tight and low-scoring, but they had the toughest time piling up points for much of the year because their attack was so limited. They could threaten through Hany Mukhtar or set pieces, and that was about it. Then, about a month ago, winger Randall Leal began to get his MLS wheels revved. He logged two goals, four assists from 22 shot creations and won 19 free kicks (yay, more set pieces!) as they closed 4W-2L-2D to clinch a postseason berth with a Play-in home game. If Leal keeps the offense diversified, Nashville SC can cause some trouble.
New England Revolution - Carles Gil
My immediate thought was to tab netminder Matt Turner, who can single-handedly keep the Revs in any game. Then I noticed New England were 7-0 when scoring multiple goals this season, and won once in their other 17 contests. It may seem like a "duh" stat that only speaks about offense, but for some teams it draws a clear line between games where everything is working and the ones when next to nothing is. Carles Gil is New England's primary chance creator, and sure enough, they were 2-0 when he teed up seven or more shots for teammates and winless when he failed to reach that number. So yeah, Gil it is. Either he rips defenses apart every time from here on out, or they go home.
Montreal Impact - Bojan Krkic
I'm not going to lie, this one had me stumped at first. The Impact rely primarily on a midfield that is very difficult to play against, surrounded by a whole lot of chaos and occasionally heroic goaltending. I could go with Romell Quioto, who has done an admirable impression of a center forward this term. Instead, I'll point to Bojan Krkic, because Montreal is infinitely more annoying to face when he's dragging defenders out of position on the dribble.
Inter Miami CF - Gonzalo Higuain
This one is kind of a no-brainer. The Herons are 6-1 when they score two or more goals. In his career, Gonzalo Higuain has scored 307 goals, hitting the net on roughly 37% of his shots on frame to ring the bell once every 144 minutes of play. Thus far in Miami, he's scored just once in 801 minutes, in part because only 11 of his 34 shot attempts have been on goal. If this guy reverts to his usual sniper norm, this becomes an entirely different team to face.
Sporting Kansas City - Johnny Russell
I view Peter Vermes' side a bit like I view Orlando City. Lots of good pieces working in unison means they don't need mega-stars to win. That said, Sporting KC do have one guy who is able to wreck the best laid plans without warning no matter how good your team is: Johnny Russell. The wiggly winger is the one guy in this team with the ability to go rogue against a set defense. For my money, they're going to need some individual artistry from him to escape the West.
Seattle Sounders - Nicolas Lodeiro
Welcome to what may be the easiest pick of the bunch. The Sounders have no shortage of aces, and even multiple match winners. Still, Nicolas Lodeiro is the guy that puts everyone else in the right position to succeed, and consequently, the architect of every other team's playoff nightmares.
Portland Timbers - Jorge Villafana
On a team with so many important figures, tabbing Jorge Villafana as the Timbers' make-or-break man probably sounds strange. But think about the right-side marauders Portland will need to shackle if they aim to reach another 2020 title game. How will the West be won? Likely in large part through right-side terrors like Carlos Vela, Johnny Russell, Kelvin Leerdam and Romain Métanire. That doesn't even include troublesome sorts like Cristian Espinoza, Andre Shinyashiki, Ethan Finlay, Michael Barrios and Bryan Reynolds, the last two of which will need to be dealt with first. Villafana was a low-key standout in Portland's previous deep runs, and his play may be even more telling this time.
Minnesota United - Roman Metanire
It's quite tough to single out one player as most integral in this Loons side, which has several pressure points in its lineup. I'm going to go with Metanire at right back. Last year, he was a force of nature routinely owning the entire right flank in a Best-XI caliber season. Like Minnesota United, he's been a shade off for much of 2020. His play has picked up of late, and well whaddya know, the team is on a 4W-0L-4D run that includes five of their seven clean sheets for the season. When he's on, they're infinitely more dangerous.
Colorado Rapids - Andre Shinyashiki
The Rapids are another team that almost always wins when they bag at least two goals, and almost never does when they don't. Over the first half of Colorado's season, Shinyashiki was oddly quiet. Like pin-drop quiet. Since mid-September, he has been quite loud indeed, scoring four times in the last eight games and creating tons of opportunities for his running mates. Not coincidentally, the Rapids won five of those games to secure their playoff return even though they sat out action for a whole month in the middle of that span. They definitely need Shinyashiki firing on all cylinders.
FC Dallas - Andres Ricaurte
For one of the toughest teams to figure out in the league, identifying FC Dallas' key cog for the postseason is incredibly simple. Some observers have opined that summer recruit Andres Ricaurte has been a bit underwhelming so far. I'm here to tell you they've got it backward. I say the players around the do-it-all midfielder have been letting him down. What's a guy to do? Put the team on his back, just like he did during their recent season-best 4W-1L-1D run.
LAFC - Eduard Atuesta
Bob Bradley's boys have shown that they can score even when Carlos Vela isn't available. They've shown that they can invade the final third when Mark-Anthony Kaye is out or Latif Blessing is pressed into backline duty. However, when Eduard Atuesta wasn't fit enough to start during a seven-game midseason stretch, LAFC suffered five of their eight losses. A rare breed smooth-as-silk defensive midfielder halts opposing rushes and directs traffic toward that scary attack. He's also the one guy they can't do without, and thus the firm basis for any title hopes they hold.
San Jose Earthquakes - Jackson Yueill
Some playoff teams get there, if not also excel there, because they can win even when things aren't going their way. The Earthquakes are not one of those teams. Aside from very rare exceptions, they win when they're controlling games and they lose when opponents play them like a fiddle. Which San Jose player is the most capable of controlling traffic in both directions? That would be Jackson Yueill, who'll need to continue his fine stretch of form if the Quakes are to rumble through the postseason.