Four players who raised their profiles during the MLS playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Last year, when Houston visited Los Angeles for a second straight MLS Cup, there were no real surprises, be it in the match or in the two teams’ paths to Carson. This year was a little different. While nobody was shocked to see Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake in the final game, a handful of individuals played unexpectedly large roles in their successes, perhaps changing the way those players perceived around Major League Soccer.

In alphabetical order, here are the four that raised their profiles (or, changed perceptions) most over the last six weeks:

AURÉLIEN COLLIN, D, SPORTING KC

Before Saturday’s game, we talked about the Collin-ian dualism that undermines the Frenchman’s renown, something his own indiscretions play into. That physicality-versus-efficiacy debate took center stage against RSL, with Collin nearly drawing a second yellow card late in regulation time.

Ultimately, Collin’s quality won out, his second half equalizer and shootout-winning kick part of his Most Valuable Player performance. While his handling of Robbie Findley may have drawn some pained groans from the RSL faithful, the assembled media saw beyond those grey areas and voted him to the game’s highest individual honor. It was proof Collin’s worst traits need not overshadow his ability to be a dominant MLS defender.

[MORE: MLS Cup Man of the Match: Sporting Kansas City’s Aurelien Collin]

In five playoff games, the 27-year-old scored three times, and while his play in defense wasn’t perfect, his overall postseason performance was enough to force his detractors to reconsider. Maybe Collin does cross the clean-dirty line too often, but that’s not enough to justify overlooking him as one of the league’s best defenders – somebody who may look to capitalize on his postseason performance to get back to Europe.

source:  BENNY FEILHABER, M, SPORTING KC

Feilhaber’s virtues were trumpeted so much after Sporting’s second leg against Houston, revisiting them now would be redundant. Instead, let’s look at what’s ahead for the 28-year-old former U.S. National Team member. To what extent did his playoff run revitalize his career?

We’ve heard some say Feilhaber’s postseason should vault him back into national team contention, but that’s probably not going to happen. When you have players like Sacha Kljestan fighting for time (or, sometimes even callups), it’s hard to see why two or three good games should reshuffle Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart. Perhaps Feilhaber’s done enough to justify another look in January, but given the limited time the full U.S. team will have together before starting World Cup preparations, Feilhaber’s probably on the outside looking in.

On the club-level, though, Feilhaber’s month was huge. The postseason provided a proof of concept after a season where the former Revolution midfielder failed to establish himself in Peter Vermes’ XI. Now, going into the offseason, he’s given his coach and technical director reason to believe he’s a solution for 2014, not just another Bobby Convey-esque failed experiment. Now, the question shifts from whether he can contribute to whether he can replicate this performance in the regular season.

In that respect, it was a huge month for Feilhaber. While Feilhaber’s always been capable of this type of impact, he still needed to show it. In the playoffs, he did.

source: Getty Images

ROBBIE FINDLEY, F, REAL SALT LAKE

Who knew Findley would play such a big part in RSL’s postseason? Apparently Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey, but few others. After Findley scored twice in the Western Conference finals against Portland, Kreis noted the importance of bringing back a player who could score in big games. On Saturday, the former U.S. international nearly came through again, putting a first half chance off the post.

Findley’s broader reputation has always been a strange one, with fans constantly asking for more from the burner’s game. When, in 2010, he was brought back into the national team to try and emulate the injured Charlie Davies, he fell victim to the hopes being cast upon him by the hype of  South Africa. His failure to form a Davies-esque bond with Jozy Altidore became many’s lasting memory of the 2009 MLS Cup champion.

Perhaps 2013 will remind people that Findley is more than ‘not Charlie Davies.’ He’s a player that scored 12 goals for RSL in 2009, somebody who can still exploit very specific matchups.

He may not quite be international caliber, but few are. As the 2013 postseason showed, you don’t need to be one your national team’s four best forwards to be a valuable piece at the club level.

source: APCHRIS SCHULER, D, REAL SALT LAKE

On an individual level, this is the postseason’s big winner, the 26-year-old having made a name for himself with MLS’s national audience. While injuries prevented the 2010 draftee from making his mark before the playoffs, his play over the last five games has sparked Feilhaber-esque national team discussion. But whereas the discussion around the Kansas City midfielder is driven by a sense of nostalgia and vindication, Schuler’s credentials are being lauded by those within the game, something Real Salt Lake’s decision makers predicted would happen at the outset of the 2013 season.

Whether U.S. Soccer agrees with those accolades remains to be seen, but during Real Salt Lake’s postseason run, Schuler’s performance made a compelling case. In defense, he teamed with Nat Borchers to shut down Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan before helping his team hold Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers to two goals in 180 minutes. Against Kansas City, he got caught under Collin on Sporting’s only goal, but by that time, he’d already made the case.

Going forward, fitness will be the biggest concern, but if Schuler can stay healthy, he’ll establish himself among MLS’s best defenders, national team or not.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.