It's playoff time and Goal.com's Allen Ramsey has some unheralded player for Major League Soccer fans to keep an eye on.
Don't you just love the playoffs? I know, soccer fans tend to be against it, but not me. I love the drama of it all, and in Major League Soccer, there really isn't a better way to distinguish a champion. With the unbalanced East-West system, teams don't all play the same schedule and there's just no way of knowing if the points would've turned out differently had L.A. played Columbus' schedule.
So we get a few weeks of high intensity matches to decide which team gets to spend the next year calling themselves champions of MLS. I love it. Playoffs are the American way, and I, for one, am ready for it to get started.
Like with every professional sport in the U.S., the playoffs give players a chance to become heroes, even if they were a nobody just a few minutes before. I mean, what Boston Red Sox fan doesn't remember the name Bucky Dent? Which Houston Oilers fan can forget the name Frank Reich? (The name still makes me just a bit sick.)
The MLS playoffs are no different. We all know who the stars are coming into the second season. Names like Blanco, Beckham, Barros Schelotto, Ljungberg, Joseph, and Holden will dominate most of the build up to the matches, but the playoffs are a grand stage for some up-and-coming star to make a name for himself.
With that in mind for the Short List this week, I've picked one player with less than stellar credentials from each playoff team who I think could make the jump to stardom before the playoffs end.
Kevin Alston, New England Revolution
The rookie right back is electric. His pace, skill on the ball, and fearless runs into the attack remind me of a younger, faster, Frankie Hejduk. What makes him so appealing in this playoff run is that the Revs aren't scoring many goals, so Alston will likely be given a free reign to try and create some chances.
Facing Chicago in the first round, Alston will certainly have his work cut out for him in dealing with the Fire wingers, but I look for him to try and spark the Revolution attack.
Marco Pappa, Chicago Fire
Pappa is close to being a star already, but a good showing in the playoffs could send the young Guatemalan into being a headliner when the 2010 campaign kicks off. Right now, he plays second fiddle to some of the Fire's more established superstars, but his close control and ability to make defenders look downright foolish is fun to watch.
The matchup against New England is not a sure pass for Chicago, and a bit of brilliance from Pappa could be just what the Fire need to slip past their rivals for the second year in a row.
Emmanuel Ekpo, Columbus Crew
The Nigerian is a playmaker who still needs to refine his game to become a star in the league, but could very well produce a few moments of brilliance for the defending champions. Pure pace is only one asset Ekpo brings to the Crew. He has also shown the ability to find the right pass in the final third as his six assists clearly show.
It's easy to overlook Ekpo when you have guys like Barros Schelotto to deal with, which should lead to a few very good chances for the youngster to make his mark.
Will Johnson, Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake will need a minor miracle to get past Columbus, and Johnson may be just the guy to supply it. With the Crew back line being arguably the best in the league, star striker Robbie Findley is going to have his hands full with trying to find space to operate. Johnson has the skill to open up that space and find a moment to make a difference.
He has proven to be a good player in big spots and was and an absolute beast in the Gold Cup for Canada, but his regular season form was not the best. Look for Johnson to turn it up a notch in the playoffs.
Steve Zakuani, Seattle Sounders
What's not to like about the rookie? He has all the tools to be a superstar in MLS and the playoffs should give him a golden opportunity to climb a few notches up the ladder.
What I like most about Zakuani, as it relates to the 2009 playoffs, is the first round match up suits him well. Houston has a very complete team, but if there is a weakness, it's at the back. With plenty of star power around him to occupy the time of the Houston back line, the Akron product should have plenty of time and space to show why he is one of the most exciting prospects in the league.
Luis Angel Landin, Houston Dynamo
The Mexican has been a bit of a disappointment since coming to Houston earlier this year, but that doesn't diminish the talent that he has. Houston's strike force is not what it once was, and Landin should get the chance to make his mark against Seattle.
It's going to be tough sledding against the Sounders in the first round, but Landin has the advantage of a very good midfield that knows how to supply strikers. I would bet that he has at least a few chances to put his name on the scoresheet Thursday night.
A.J. DeLaGarza, Los Angeles Galaxy
DeLaGarza has been a revelation for the Galaxy this season. He has the ability to become one of the top wing backs in the league over the next few years, and should play a major part in any playoff success the Bruce Arena's men have this year.
He may be overshadowed by fellow rookie defender Omar Gonzalez, but DeLaGarza has the ability to tun the flank as well and lock down his side of the pitch on the defensive side.
Sacha Kljestan, Chivas USA
I know it's a deviation from the other players on the list because Kljestan is a well known player in MLS. (He's on the cover of FIFA!) But this is a golden opportunity for the burgeoning star to put his name back in the running for Bob Bradley's team and their little trip to South Africa next summer. A good showing could also have Europe calling on him again this winter, so this is a big time for the 24-year-old.
It was a disappointing year for Kljestan, who looked poised at the start of the season to be poised for a big year. But the chance to knock out his team's arch rivals in the opening round and match wits with two of the best players in the league is also the chance for Kljestan to make people forget he ever had a down year.
Allen Ramsey is an associate editor of Goal.com. The Short List runs every Wednesday on Goal.com USA.
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