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 3 Things: Resurgent Zardes, Toronto up, New England down

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A busy Saturday in Major League Soccer sees three interesting results bolstering the story lines of the final few months of the season.

[ MORE: Unstoppable Josef | Zlatan, too ]

1) Imagine a world with the reigning champs as your reward for finishing first.

With 14 matches to play, Toronto FC has Jozy Altidore back in the fold and has pulled to within eight points of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot after a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday.

Sebastian Giovinco looks like Sebastian Giovinco in scoring another outstanding goal, just his fifth of the season, while Jonathan Osorio also scored in the win.

Before you watch Seba’s goal, picture you’ve won the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now picture TFC as your semifinal reward.

2) New England is well and truly slumping

Brad Friedel‘s Revs are slipping after losing a third-straight league match, and New England has gained a solitary point since the calendar turned to July following a 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena.

Fourth through ninth in the East are separated by nine points, and New England is very much in that mix now. Friedel is certainly at the most trying time of his tenure.

Second half goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer did the trick for RBNY, who have claimed 15 of the last 18 points available to them (The lone blemish is the Hudson River Derby).

The Red Bulls are now 8-1-1 at home this season, while New England is 1-4-4 away from Foxboro.

3) Gyasi Zardes’ return to form is surprising and wonderful

Columbus has its second win since May 19, and will be feeling much better about itself following a 3-2 comeback win over Orlando City which included a pair of equalizers.

One of those came in the 88th minute, as Gyasi Zardes completed his brace by converting a penalty won by new arrival Patrick Mullins.

The Crew won late via a rare Wil Trapp goal — the USMNT midfielder has just two in 161 matches — but let’s focus on Zardes.

Zardes’ 13th goal of the season continues an amazing turnaround under striker whisperer Gregg Berhalter. It’s Zardes’ second double-digit season, and his first since 2014. He is firmly in frame for another USMNT look, this time as a center forward, but first there’s plenty to like about the big man.

Surging Galaxy ride Ibrahimovic magic to 3-1 win (video)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man on fire, and the LA Galaxy are rounding into form.

The Galaxy overcame an early deficit in Chester to clobber the Philadelphia Union 3-1 on Saturday behind a goal and an assist from their world-class striker.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

Romain Alessandrini had two assists, while Michael Ciani and Ola Kamara also scored for LA. CJ Sapong scored for Philly, assisted by Borek Dockal.

Unbeaten-in-seven LA moves into fourth in the West with the win, while Philadelphia remains three points back of sixth in the East.

Ibrahimovic has now scored in six of his last seven matches, and has 12 goals and two assists in 21 matches overall.

Let’s start with the assist, which we must’ve seen two dozen times when the big Swede was with Paris Saint-Germain.

Ibrahimovic takes a difficult pass out of the air with absurd touch, then waits for the right time to send an impeccable through ball into the path of Kamara.

As for the goal, you almost feel for Mark McKenzie.

The Union’s Homegrown defender has to choose between Alessandrini darting into his box and allowing Ibrahimovic a lick of space.

He gives it, understandably, then rushes to close down Ibrahimovic.

It wasn’t fast enough. Boom.

Americans on both sides, Weah scores as PSG fall to Bayern (video)

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Two hopes of the USMNT’s future — one more immediate than the other — squared off in the International Champions Cup on Saturday.

Paris Saint-Germain teenager Timothy Weah, 18, went 90 minutes and scored his side’s only goal in the 3-1 loss in Austria.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

On the other side of the field was 62nd minute substitute Chris Richards, far less known to the American supporter.

Richards is on loan from FC Dallas, where he’s a Homegrown Player. The 18-year-old center back is going to play for Bayern’s U-19 side following a successful trial in April.

Both Bayern and PSG were without key pieces, as Weah went up against a decent Bayern back line of Juan Bernat, Javi Martinez, Josip Stanisic, and Rafinha.

Arjen Robben, Sandro Wagner, and Franck Ribery were the biggest names in Bayern’s XI, while David Alaba, Kingsley Coman, and Serge Gnabry came off the bench.

For PSG, Gianluigi Buffon started as did Adrien Rabiot.

Weah’s goal is below, and here’s what he had to say about it:

“It’s an amazing feeling and getting a well-done job. Me scoring goals, I was really happy to get my first goal for PSG and first goal in this competition. We’re going to Singapore with our head on our shoulders. We’re going to be really humble and keep playing.”

Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending

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Jurgen Klopp admits he’d love to work with Christian Pulisic again, but isn’t going to butt his nose into Borussia Dortmund’s business.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s International Champions Cup match against BVB, Klopp was asked about his interest in the American teenager.

[ MORE: Josef Martinez bags 3 more ]

Klopp was quick to point out that Pulisic is under contract to Dortmund and not for sale, as much as he’s aware.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He had not his best season last year but he was still a decisive player but it’s important in that age group that there’s no rush. He still has 14 or 15 years to play in his career and that’s good and he wants to be the best Pulisic he can be. For this, there is still space for development.

“If – at one point – he will join us, I don’t know. I like him, it’s not that that could be the problem, but we respect contracts still and there’s no market I know about at the moment. We did our business and Dortmund are doing theirs. All good.”

Also all good? Klopp’s evolution on spending after blasting other Premier League clubs for big money buys in the past.

Klopp said he would quit football if transfer fees like Paul Pogba‘s became the norm. Well, they have, and no club has spent as much money as the Reds this summer.

“That’s the problem these days, hey? Whatever b.s. you say, nobody will forget it. On the other side, it’s still kind of true. I couldn’t have imagined since then that the world would change like it has. Two years ago £100million was a crazy number. Since then the world has changed completely.”

He said he’s going to do whatever it takes to make Liverpool successful, and Klopp now has the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and most expensive defender in his squad.