With just four teams remaining in the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs, the matches are getting more important with each passing day. The conference finals feature a pair of excellent matchups that could truly go either way, so it will be up to the star players to step up and play at an elite level.
Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers will do battle in the Western Conference Championship, while Sporting Kansas City will take on the Houston Dynamo out east. Many fans are surprised that the likes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls are already out, but that speaks to the talent on the remaining teams.
Here is a closer look at three players who will almost certainly rise to the occasion and play to the best of their abilities in the conference finals.
Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
No player remaining the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs scored more goals during the regular season than Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio. The Costa Rican star was the driving force behind Real Salt Lake's attack all season long, and that should continue in the playoffs. Although Saborio has yet to score in two playoff matches, there is reason to believe that he'll turn it around.
The main concern regarding Saborio, though, is his health. The first leg of Real Salt Lake's series against Portland starts on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, and Saborio is currently considered a game-time decision, according to Ben Jata of MLSSoccer.com:
Considering how huge this match is, though, it's hard to imagine Saborio sitting out unless he absolutely can't perform. Even if Saborio isn't 100 percent, Real Salt Lake needs him out there. The team would be compromised significantly without him, and he has to know that. With that in mind, expect a heroic effort out of Saborio assuming he battles through his hip injury and plays.
Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
There were plenty of fantastic goalkeeping performances in the MLS this season, but no full-time starter was as good as Sporting Kansas City stopper Jimmy Nielsen.
The great Dane led MLS with a goals-against average of just 0.88, and he was second in shutouts with 13 behind only Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. As integral as goalkeeping is during the regular season, it's even more important in the playoffs.
Heading into Sporting KC's series against Houston, Nielsen was only in the middle of the pack in playoff goalkeeping. His 1.29 goals against average was quite a bit higher than what he sported during the regular season, but that was an unsustainable number. As long as Nielsen gets some defensive support, he'll be just fine.
The Dynamo have plenty of offensive firepower, so Nielsen will have his hands full in the second leg of the series. Nielsen is the type of player who raises his game when it matters most. With two All-Star nods and a Goalkeeper of the Year Award in his back pocket, the MLS Cup is the only thing missing from Nielsen's trophy case, and he'll do everything possible to win it.
Diego Valeri (Portland)
Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri hasn't wasted any time making his mark on the MLS. The 27-year-old native of Argentina is already viewed as one of the league's most complete players as he had an MLS-best 13 assists during the regular season to go along with 10 goals. He is a huge reason for Portland's success, and he represents their best chance to play for the MLS Cup.
It isn't always easy to play well in the playoffs after a strong regular season, but that hasn't been an issue for Valeri thus far. Valeri netted the series-winning goal against the rival Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Semifinals to propel his team to this point. Truth be told, Valeri always seems to find himself in the middle of a scoring situation, according to Opta Jack:
Portland and Real Salt Lake figure to engage in a knock-down, drag-out series over the next two weeks, but skill often wins out. There may be no player remaining in the playoffs who is more skilled than Valeri. He'll make that known by leaving an imprint on the Western Conference Championship.
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