With only four clubs remaining in the MLS Cup Playoffs, the pressure is on for each side to play its best. In order for that to happen, the teams will need some great performances from key players.
Some of the league's biggest stars are no longer in contention for a league championship. Landon Donovan and the L.A. Galaxy have been eliminated, along with Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders. The New York Red Bulls and Thierry Henry are also out after finishing the regular season with the most points.
Still, there are plenty of key players remaining around the league. These stars will have a big role in the next few matches, and the one that performs the best could end up raising the trophy at the end of the year.
Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City
The strength of Sporting KC is the defense, which led the league with the fewest goals allowed this season. Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler took care of business on the back line and made few mistakes to keep every match low scoring.
However, the offense does not run without Graham Zusi. Despite bouncing back and forth to the United States national team, he still managed to total seven assists this season after getting 12 a year ago.
He has great instincts on the pitch, and he knows how to create opportunities for everyone around, either with crosses or direct passes in front of the net. When left open, he is more than capable of scoring himself.
After the first leg against the Houston Dynamo ended in a scoreless draw, Kansas City will need Zusi to generate some offense in order to advance to the finals.
Will Bruin, Houston Dynamo
While he can be a bit inconsistent, Will Bruin is the best offensive weapon on Houston, despite being one of the youngest players on the team.
The 24-year-old forward scored a team-high 10 goals while finishing second with seven assists, one back of Brad Evans. He has great ball skills, and it allows him to dribble in and out of traffic in order to find an opening near the net.
At this point, the only question is if he can stay in an entire match, considering he has been subbed out in five of the last six contests.
Still, his ability should be on display in the conference finals on the road against Sporting Kansas City.
Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake
There are a ton of offensive stars who can come through for Real Salt Lake, including Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales or Joao Plata. However, the squad will not be successful without a strong game from goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The 34-year-old veteran was the national team's starter throughout the run to the Gold Cup championship. He was excellent in that tournament, and he has carried that over to be one of the top keepers in the MLS.
Unfortunately, he also tends to be a bit inconsistent, which is something that could destroy Real Salt Lake going forward. The club will only face top competition from this point on, and it cannot afford to give up easy goals.
Rimando has to be a leader on this team and make sure he can keep opponents off the scoresheet.
Will Johnson, Portland Timbers
Few players in the league have a wider skill set than Will Johnson. The midfielder is one of the best passers around for both long and short targets and can put a ball on net from distance with great consistency.
His ability to score in a set piece also should scare opponents from fouling anyone on Portland.
Most importantly, he comes into his club's biggest match of the season red hot. He has goals in three of his last four appearances and will try to keep up his run against Real Salt Lake. Even with a 4-2 deficit in aggregate score, Johnson gives his side a chance.
When he returns home for the second leg in Portland, the Canadian star will be ready to perform at his best to bring his team back from the brink of elimination.
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