When the MLS playoffs roll around, the focus invariably shifts to the star players, the headliners who everyone expects to step up with the performances we have come to expect from them. Last year we saw Robbie Keane lead the LA Galaxy a second straight title, and in past years we have seen the likes of Dwayne DeRosario, Brian Ching and Landon Donovan deliver signature moments.
Winning titles isn’t just about the star players though. A team’s title run can oftentimes hinge on unsung players stepping up and making names for themselves in the biggest of moments. Before he was an MVP candidate, Mike Magee did that for the Galaxy, and in past years we have seen the likes of Ned Grabavoy, Brad Evans and Brian Carroll play key roles in title runs while other players grabbed the headlines.
This year, we will find some new players who step up and impress by showing they can perform under pressure, in the biggest games of the year, and the teams who have such players will be the ones who are most likely to make the deepest runs in this year’s MLS playoffs.
Who are the leading candidates to be breakout performers in the 2013 MLS playoffs? Here are eight players to keep an eye on as the conference semifinals kick off this weekend:
DAX MCCARTY, New York Red Bulls
As a player who has been a regular starter in MLS for the better part of seven years, McCarty is hardly an unknown commodity, but on a team loaded with veteran players, McCarty is actually the youngest regular on the Red Bulls.
Last year was definitely his breakout season in terms of being considered one of the better midfielders in MLS. He helped FC Dallas reach the 2010 MLS Cup Final, and the 26-year old will be key to the Red Bulls chance of getting there this year.
DOM DWYER, Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC has the stingy defense, and quality midfield, to make a title run, but what the team needs to secure the club’s first MLS Cup since 2000 is a reliable goal scorer. Enter Dwyer, who closed out the season as Peter Vermes’ first-choice option up top.
Dwyer has already lifted a trophy this year, helping Orlando City win the USL PRO championship while on loan, so don’t be surprised if the second-year forward becomes the threat at forward Vermes needs to grab a title.
KELYN ROWE, New England Revolution
The Revs are loaded with breakout candidates, from Diego Fagundez, to Andrew Farrell, to Scott Caldwell, but Rowe has been one of the best playmakers in the league in just his second pro season and has the confidence to lead the underdog Revolution to glory.
Rowe’s vision, passing touch and ability to score goals on his own make him a versatile threat who could cause problems for Sporting KC in the East semis, and for anyone else if the Revs pull the upset.
WARREN CREAVALLE, Houston Dynamo
Kofi Sarkodie was a good candidate for the Dynamo’s breakout player spot, but he filled that role last year, emerging as a dangerous threat at right back. Creavalle is the pick this year after quietly establishing himself as a player Dom Kinnear trusts to give the team an athletic and tireless presence in central midfield.
Ricardo Clark has really shown off the attacking side of his game late in the year, and a big reason for that has been Creavalle’s work rate behind Clark. If the second-year midfielder can corral opposing playmakers on his own, that will only make the Dynamo more dangerous as Clark stays forward.
JOSE VALENCIA- Portland Timbers
The Timbers have a variety of options to play as the target forward in their preferred 4-3-3 system, but with Max Urruti’s status still uncertain due to a hamstring injury, Caleb Porter could call on Valencia to be the difference maker up top.
The young Colombian forward has been a bit of an enigma this year, showing promising flashes at times, but at other times struggling to make an impact. His speed makes him an intriguing option, especially in the Seattle series, with the Sounders having centerbacks susceptible to fast forwards.
LAMAR NEAGLE, Seattle Sounders
On a team with plenty of star power, Neagle has been one of the team’s most important players, putting together a career year after returning to the Sounders. Versatile enough to play forward or out wide, Neagle has the qualities to take advantage to opposing defenses paying too much attention to Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson.
Neagle started alongside Johnson in the 4-4-2 diamond, which found success against Colorado, but Neagle will have to work harder to make things happen against Portland in the West semifinals.
CHRIS SCHULER, Real Salt Lake
When RSL traded away Jamison Olave, Schuler was seen as a natural replacement, but injuries kept him off the field for a good chunk of the season. Since returning and establishing himself as a starter again, Schuler has shown why RSL had so much faith in him.
Boasting good size and surprising quickness for his size, Schuler is going to have his hands full with either Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan. Neither is easy, but if he can contain them, and also provide a scoring threat on set pieces, Schuler could come away from the playoffs being seen as a potential U.S. national team prospect.
GYASI ZARDES, Los Angeles Galaxy
Rookies don’t generally make much noise in the playoffs, but Zardes will have every opportunity to shine. Playing alongside Keane and Donovan, Zardes should have freedom to keep attacking down the left flank, and while RSL right back Tony Beltran won’t be easy to beat, Zardes has the physical tools to make anybody’s night difficult.
The CSU-Bakersfield product still needs to work on his finishing, which is likely what keeps Arena from deploying him at forward, but he showed increasing confidence as the regular season wound to a close. The Galaxy will need him to be the team’s third major scoring threat as opponents look to key on Keane and Donovan.