By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 28, 2016) US Soccer Players – The 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs are fully underway. USMNT fans have plenty of plotlines to follow regardless of their club affiliation. There’s an argument that USMNT players may have never mattered more in the postseason.
As the league’s top teams and players try to survive and advance along the seven-week journey from Knockout Round to MLS Cup, the national team is never forgotten. We all know Jurgen Klinsmann has some reservations about the structures and shortcomings of the United States’ professional soccer landscape, and not without reason. However, the MLS postseason holds real value for him and his staff. It’s a built-in crucible that amplifies and celebrates pressure and adversity, two of the top priorities in evaluating the player pool.
In that regard, it’s optimal prep for November’s looming World Cup qualifying showdowns with Mexico and Costa Rica. With that in mind, here are a few prominent questions to consider between now and MLS Cup.
Can Jozy and Michael fling that monkey off Toronto’s back?
Toronto FC opened this postseason by marking a bit of history on Wednesday. They won the first-ever playoff game at BMO Field. As usual, their star USMNTers Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley were influential in the vanquishing of Alejandro Bedoya’s Philadelphia Union. The Union never really got going in their franchise’s second-ever playoff trip.
To put it more bluntly, the Union’s defense repeatedly shot itself in the foot. TFC was happy to take advantage. That should take nothing away from Altidore’s performance, however. The big striker was relentless and punishing on both sides of the ball, bagging a goal and an assist. Meanwhile, after an uneven start, Bradley asserted his usual control over the central midfield area and dictated the tempo for much of the evening.
The scenes in the stands at the towering remodeled venue were the most memorable part of the occasion. The Reds’ hardcore supporters sang, chanted, and popped off pyrotechnics in a spirited display to rival many of Europe’s best. Even through the TV, the surging confidence of a long-downtrodden club and the city that urges it on was relentless.
Italian superstar Sebastian Giovinco is the straw that stirs the drink in Toronto. Alongside him, the US contingent is vital to TFC’s growing ambitions. Their success will fuel good things on both sides of the border.
Can Kellyn Acosta’s FC Dallas win the treble?
With US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield hardware in hand, FCD are already one of 2016’s biggest success stories. They face a rugged road to the historic “treble” they’ve made no secret of targeting. Anyone who pays any attention to MLS is watching keenly as coach Oscar Pareja & Co. work to build an already compelling case for the club’s youth development-centric model.
Acosta is its walking embodiment. A rangy midfielder who already seems to have won Klinsmann’s trust as a national-team fullback, the Homegrown has enormous upside for both club and country. These playoffs can become a stage for his claim to a bigger role with the US.
The North Texas club has been lightly represented on the national team of late, but that may change as a result of their achievements. The American center back duo of Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman have explicitly targeted a US call as part of their ongoing motivation.
Can Sacha cap a dream year?
Sacha Kljestan reached rare heights for an American creative midfielder in 2016. Building on last year’s solid campaign, the New York Red Bulls centerpiece became only the second player in MLS history to notch 20 assists in a season (joining the iconic Carlos Valderrama). His team, meanwhile, reeled off a tremendous run of form – they haven’t lost a game since July 3 – to earn the status of MLS Cup frontrunners.
Klinsmann offered him a long-awaited USMNT return when a roster slot opened up before September’s qualifiers. And Kljestan seized the chance with both hands, contributing eye-catching performances against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. That led to starting roles in both of last month’s friendlies. Now he’s a strong contender for a major role come November.
Those ambitions are fully intertwined with the need for continued excellence with the Red Bulls. Traditionally the league’s most star-crossed club, RBNY have good reason to believe that their 20-year Cup hex can end this fall. Surmounting that final hurdle will take clutch contributions from Kljestan. It would represent a storybook achievement for a veteran who has won respect in many quarters of the American game.
What does the next level look like for Jordan Morris in Seattle?
The heart condition that brought Clint Dempsey’s season to an abrupt halt in September could well have spelled disaster for his Seattle Sounders as they rallied from their woeful start to the year. Yet the veteran attacker’s enforced break instead proved to be a fateful prompting for his rookie teammate Morris.
Arguably the most highly-scrutinized rookie in MLS history not named Freddy Adu, Morris has already experienced a range of highs and lows in his first year as a pro. Even though every rational observer expected him to hit a steep learning curve, the Emerald City’s bright spotlight wasn’t always flattering as he labored through it. Dempsey’s sudden absence was both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s one that Morris handled superbly.
The rookie bagged four goals and an assist in the 10 regular-season games following his veteran colleague’s last appearance. Less measurably but just as crucially, Morris has flashed added nuances in his game, helping his Sounders in myriad ways beyond the stats sheet. He’s emerged from a testing stretch as a stronger, smarter and more dependable player.
It makes Seattle a dark-horse cup contender. It also leaves all of us wondering just how great Morris could yet become.
Will MNT outsiders bang down the gate?
As the most prominent and meaningful portion of their season, the playoffs are always a chance for American MLSers outside the current USMNT picture to assert their credentials. Darlington Nagbe helped clinch his international debut as a key cog in the Timbers’ title run last year. Gyasi Zardes had a similarly galvanizing experience in 2014, and still others in previous years.
Klinsmann’s recent call-ups show that players are not necessarily punished for their club teams’ lack of postseason involvement or success. It’s a primetime stage just the same, however, that’s well-timed to influence January camp decisions. Will new faces barge their way into the coach’s thoughts by shining over the next month?
A few of Kljestan’s RBNY teammates have reason to harbor such ambitions. Several of the unheralded Colorado Rapids’ role players can say the same. And no one should be surprised if even less-predictable names emerge out of left field next month.
MLS has adopted a “Rise or Fall” motto for its 2016 postseason. It’s an apt turn of phrase for USMNT-minded players as well.
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