The 2012 MLS Cup is less than two weeks away, bringing a conclusion to what has been an enthralling three weeks of soccer.
With 11 days to preview, predict and prognosticate a potential outcome, let's look back at the top 10 players in the 2012 MLS playoffs so far.
Disclaimer: In order to avoid a list filled with nothing but representatives from the Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy, I have limited each conference champion to three players. No matter how deserving other members of the Galaxy and Dynamo may be, it is unfair to exclude some of the memorable performances from other teams.
Unfortunately, this list is limited to 10 players. Here are three worthy players deserving of mention but who didn't quite make the list:
Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy
Yes, I left the heart and soul of the LA Galaxy off this list, not because he doesn't deserve a spot in the top 10, but because of my three-player rule.
Yes, his apparent desire to play the beautiful game coincides with the Galaxy's playoff run, but so does the performance of some of his teammates. Had he not missed the second leg of the Western Conference Finals due to injury (hamstring), Donovan would have easily earned a spot in the top 10.
Eddie Johnson, Seattle Sounders
The 2012 MLS Playoffs will be a what-could-have-been year for the Seattle Sounders. Had Johnson been healthy for most of the postseason, there is no telling how far the Sounders could have gone.
A horrendous offside call in Sunday’s match, which negated an early goal from Johnson, did not deter the 28-year-old striker. He would find the back of the net just moments later.
Seattle was poised for a comeback, but Mark Geiger, the bane of my existence, slammed the door on my MLS Cup prediction once more. The Sounders were unable to recover from a disputed hand-ball whistled in the 67th minute.
Tally Hall, Houston Dynamo
Hall is another participant in the 2012 MLS Cup who, unfortunately, did not make this list.
He has allowed just four goals in five matches in goal for the Dynamo and continues to rewrite every postseason record in MLS and franchise history. Although he is worthy of a spot, the performances of some of his teammates pushes him out of this list.
Does anybody even remember that the Vancouver Whitecaps were in the MLS playoffs?
It has only been three weeks since the Whitecaps were eliminated by the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference knockout round, but it seems as if Vancouver’s herculean effort that night has been erased from people’s memories.
Let's not forget, the Whitecaps had the Galaxy up against the ropes—and probably would have pulled off a monumental upset had Matt Watson buried a chance in the 67th minute—which is why Jay DeMerit is on my list.
I will do the one thing Jürgen Klinsmann refuses to do: give the 32-year-old center-back some love.
For all of its greatness, the Galaxy’s offensive attack was more or less neutralized by the Whitecaps for the first 65 minutes of the match, thanks in large part to DeMerit’s colossal performance.
It is no coincidence that the Galaxy were able to bury Vancouver once Martin Bonjour was substituted for DeMerit in the 70th minute.
It did not take long for Bonjour to make an impact, and his challenge in the 73rd minute led to a Landon Donovan penalty that gave LA a 2-1 lead and ultimately the victory.
It may have only been a small sample from DeMerit, but it was worthy of recognition.
The San Jose Earthquakes' regular season campaign was all for naught—66 points and a Supporters Shield down the drain due to a lackluster performance in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Chris Wondolowski may soon be the MVP of the entire league, but he was not the most important player on his own team this postseason.
Bernárdez’s free-kick goal in the first leg of the semifinals—the ugliest free-kick goal I have seen all year—gave the ‘Quakes a 1-0 lead in the aggregate.
With a commanding lead, surely San Jose would take care of business at Buck Shaw Stadium, but Bernárdez’s early injury in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals altered the fortunes of the ‘Quakes and LA Galaxy.
The Galaxy went a full 102 minutes with only three shots on target. Following Bernárdez’s substitution in the 12th minute of the second leg, the Galaxy finished the final 78 minutes with four shots on target and three goals—erasing a one-goal deficit.
Much like DeMerit’s injury and its impact in the knockout round, it should come as no surprise that the Galaxy started clicking once Ike Opara was on the pitch.
His flat-footed, late defense bears sole responsibility for two of LA’s scoring chances—scoring chances of the type Bernárdez was able to neutralize in the first leg.
Bernárdez’s bruising style of play could have made the difference in the second leg of the semifinals, but unfortunately for the Goonies, we will never know.
Congratulations to Austin Berry for being named the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year, but the result would have been different had the MLS playoffs been a factor in the voters’ decision.
Nick DeLeon’s performance for DC United during the 2012 MLS playoffs was nothing short of spectacular. The sky’s truly the limit for the 22-year-old Louisville grad.
DC’s anemic offensive output (four total goals) throughout the postseason is attributed to a slew of injuries suffered during an immensely compact schedule, but that did not stop DeLeon from putting his seal on the Eastern Conference playoffs.
His fiery, workman-like effort allowed United to advance to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2006—despite having to take the field with Perry Kitchen and a duct-taped starting XI.
DeLeon finished the MLS playoffs with two goals in 360 hard-fought minutes, including the single greatest moment of DC’s 2012 season, an 88th minute game-winning goal that eliminated the rival New York Red Bulls.
He is one of only four MLS players to score multiple goals in these playoffs, and with an invaluable year of experience under his belt, the future is bright for the American youngster.
Nick Rimando’s heroics in goal during the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal were the soccer equivalent of a Rocky film.
At only 5’10”, Rimando had the biggest performance of any keeper during the 2012 MLS playoffs.
It may have ended in a scoreless draw, but the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake was the most captivating 90 minutes of soccer thus far—due in large part to Rimando’s acrobatics in goal.
As if his staggering saves were not enough, the stitches and broken nose suffered by Rimando only elevated his performance to mythic proportions. Unfortunately for Rimando, his performance in goal was wasted.
Mario Martinez’s wonder goal in the second leg of the semifinal was the final blow to Real’s MLS Cup chances.
After nine saves and 171 minutes of scoreless soccer, it took a scintillating strike to finally get one past Rimando.
If only his scoring-deficient teammates—who went the final five matches without scoring a single goal—could provide him with some assistance, then maybe, just maybe, we would be talking about another MLS Cup opportunity for the Claret and Cobalt.
Mike Magee has made a habit of scoring goals on the biggest stage in the MLS.
His speed and versatility allow him to produce for the LA Galaxy at a multitude of positions, and he has done so since donning the blue, white and gold in 2010.
His 2012 postseason performance (three goals on nine shots and one assist) is on par with the 2011 campaign (three goals on eight shots and zero assists) that helped propel the Galaxy to its third MLS Cup. If his consistent play continues, a fourth title is likely for the Galaxy.
While it does not hurt to play alongside soccer legends the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane, Magee has more than held his own.
As stated earlier, the Galaxy were on the verge of being eliminated at the hands of the woeful Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western Conference knockout round. That is, until Magee altered the paths of both teams.
His side-volley goal in the 69th minute—a ballistic missile Vancouver keeper Brad Knighton had no chance of saving—is an easy choice for the best goal in the 2012 MLS playoffs (although, I am sure Adam Moffat would beg to differ).
Since his arrival, Magee has been stuck in the shadows of Donovan, Beckham and Keane—the holy trinity of the LA Galaxy—but he will have one more opportunity to showcase his remarkable talent in the MLS Cup.
For the man they call Magic Mike, it is an opportunity he will not pass on.
Since the departure of Geoff Cameron to Stoke City, Bobby Boswell has reminded us all why he was the 2006 MLS Defender of the Year.
The Houston Dynamo have managed to protect two two-goal leads in these playoffs. While Jermaine Taylor deserves some share of the defensive credit for Sunday’s match, there is no denying that Boswell’s performance has been instrumental to the Dynamo’s Cinderella run.
With a desperate DC United team on the ropes, Boswell dominated the first half in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Chance after chance was neutralized by Boswell’s physical, perfectly timed challenges (although Lionard Pajoy deserves an assist for his ineptitude).
His vocal leadership on the pitch encapsulates the personality of a gritty Dynamo side that is yet to receive the level of acknowledgment it deserves—despite advancing to its fourth MLS cup in seven years.
Despite being the lower seed, Houston was comfortably in control in both legs of the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, Houston has been comfortably in control for the entire postseason, with Boswell being the consistent contributor.
His 450 minutes of nearly-flawless defense has Houston just 90 minutes away from a third MLS Cup.
While Galaxy fans are salivating at the thought of a potential repeat, the difference between this year's version of the Houston Dynamo and last year's version is Brad Davis.
Davis was unable to play in the 2011 MLS Cup—a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Galaxy—due to a torn right quadriceps muscle. With no apparent lingering injuries, history will not repeat itself for Davis.
Hopefully for the Dynamo, the result will not repeat itself either.
Davis has been a mainstay of the Dynamo midfield in the postseason. He has started in 19 of Houston's 21 playoff games in franchise history, and his three assists in the 2012 MLS playoffs is a franchise record—breaking the old record of two he set in 2006 and 2011.
Perhaps his signature playoff moment came in the 34th minute of the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals—a Steve-Nash-like dribble inside the box that led to Boniek Garcia's emphatic goal.
It was the final nail in DC United's coffin and Davis is now 90 minutes away from winning his fourth MLS Cup with the Dynamo.
Davis' technical ability is not limited to the pristine ball-handling skills he displayed against DC. His precision passing and soccer acumen make him a threat on any set piece.
With Davis' availability no longer an issue, Houston will have an added dimension to its attack in the most important match of the year.
True, Omar Gonzalez did not play to the best of his abilities this past Sunday against the Seattle Sounders. But his overall performance in the 2012 MLS playoffs has been the driving force behind the clamoring for his inclusion to the U.S. men's national team.
Simply put, Gonzalez’s MVP-like performance was instrumental to LA’s ability to neutralize two of the more dangerous offensive units in MLS.
The San Jose Earthquakes boasted one of the most prolific offensive attacks (72 goals) in MLS history, but only managed to score two goals in the MLS playoffs—one of which was the sloppy free-kick goal from Victor Bernárdez I mentioned earlier.
Gonzalez, who missed two of the three regular season matchups against the ‘Quakes due to injury, clearly got the better of San Jose forward Steven Lenhart during the postseason.
After letting his physical style of play do the talking, Gonzalez ended a war of words with Lenhart by sending his California rival home a few weeks earlier than anticipated.
Seattle's offensive attack did not fare well either. The Sounders faced an insurmountable three-goal deficit after being shut out in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals, and while Seattle nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback, they inevitably fell short.
If not for his subpar performance in the second leg of the Conference Finals, Gonzalez would have been higher on this list.
With a pesky Houston side coming into the Home Depot Center on Dec. 1, the Galaxy can ill afford for Gonzalez to have a repeat performance like the one he had on Sunday.
Having said that, one performance does not diminish the defensive excellence he has displayed this postseason.
Four goals on 18 shots and one assist, that is the stat line of 23-year-old striker Will Bruin.
Bruin’s four goals in the 2012 MLS Playoffs makes him the most prolific postseason goal scorer in the Houston Dynamo’s franchise history, breaking the record set by Brian Ching (three goals) in 2006.
After only playing a total of 37 minutes in the 2011 playoffs, Bruin has made the most of his chances in 2012.
His brace against the Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference knockout round set the tone for what would be another deep playoff run for Houston.
Bruin would maintain his top form by scoring a goal in each of the Dynamo’s home matches. He trails only Robbie Keane as the MLS’ top goal scorer this postseason.
Much like the majority of the Dynamo roster, Bruin is not the flashy, gaudy star associated with some of the more lucrative teams in MLS. He is consistent, productive and efficient—the trademark of a player coached by Dominic Kinnear.
It may take another performance like his one against the Fire for Houston to have any chance at winning the MLS Cup.
And then there was Robbie Keane.
Keane’s performance in the 2012 MLS playoffs is far and away the most impressive performance in recent memory.
With Landon Donovan absent from Sunday’s match against the Sounders, Keane donned the captain’s armband and helped lead the Galaxy to its eighth MLS cup appearance.
His statuesque celebration following the converted penalty kick that ended the Sounders’ dreams was the callous display worthy of such a cold-blooded striker.
Much was made about the slow start for the Galaxy at the beginning of the year (a putrid 5-8-2 start), but the Galaxy have been virtually unstoppable following Keane’s return from the 2012 Euro Cup (11-4-4 since).
After his first full season with LA, it is clear Keane has become acclimated to the structure of the MLS playoffs. In his five starts, Keane has scored a league-high five playoff goals on 15 shots. Add in one assist, and he has been a part of six of the Galaxy’s 10 playoff goals.
Keane’s 2012 performance is a far cry from his performance in 2011, where he recorded just one goal and one assist.
As of right now, there is no player hotter or in better form than the Irish legend. Should the Galaxy win a fourth MLS Cup, there is no doubt as to who the MVP of the playoffs will be.
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