The 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs kick off on Friday night as 18 teams make their bid to claim MLS Cup on December 12 over the next four weeks. As Seattle Sounders FC looks to add to its trophy collection as the defending title-holder, there are also set to be some players with Championship experience that could play key roles in their club’s title ambitions.
Here are 11 candidates, including two players that have previously lifted the trophy at the USL Championship Final and others who have earned success in the Championship postseason.
John McCarty first began his career in the Championship in 2014, where he won both Rookie of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year honors with the Rochester Rhinos, but then came to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2019 season after serving as a back-up at the Philadelphia Union for four seasons. After shining with 10 shutouts in 29 appearances for the Rowdies – and helping the side to the Championship Playoffs – his talents sent him south to Inter Miami CF for the MLS expansion club’s first year.
McCarthy was set to assume a back-up role again to veteran Luis Robles, but the 27-year-old was thrust into action late in the season after Robles suffered a fractured arm. Since then McCarthy has made eight appearances, posted a 1.25 goals-against average and a 65.5 save percentage for Inter as it reached the postseason in its first year. Going in as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, Miami may not be favored, but in McCarthy they have a shot-stopper whose already proven his worth in another knockout situation, namely the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where he back-stopped the Union to a pair of Finals in 2015 and 2018.
Dave Romney was the first major success story to come out of the LA Galaxy II, as the undrafted defender signed with the side before the 2015 Championship season and by midseason had performed so impressively that he became the first player to sign with the LA Galaxy from Los Dos, and then went on to compete for the United States U-23 National Team later that year.
Romney became a regular in the Galaxy defense during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but last offseason was acquired by Nashville SC as it made the move to Major League Soccer from the Championship. The 27-year-old quickly turned into a key figure in NSC’s defense. He was one of only two outfield players to play every minute of the 23-game MLS regular season this year and helped the side record nine shutouts, claiming the club’s Defender of the Year honor. As the playoffs arrive, Nashville’s defensive strength is likely to be key to making a playoff run, and Romney is set to be in the middle of the action.
When Sam Vines arrive at the Charlotte Independence at the start of the 2018 Championship season, he’d earned accolades in the Colorado Rapids’ academy, but had yet to make his professional debut. Two years on, Vines is not only a key figure in the Rapids’ back line as they return to the postseason, but has made his debut for the United States Men’s National Team.
Vines made 29 appearances for the Independence in his first professional season, finishing fifth on the club in minutes (2,303) and tied for second in assists (4) and third in chances created (24). The full back also put up impressive numbers on the defensive end, recording 34 interceptions, winning 19 of 28 tackles and making 128 recoveries, good for fifth on the team. He’s since made 45 appearances for the Rapids, this year recording his first goal and three assists in the top-flight to help Colorado reach the postseason for the first time since 2016.
It might not have been the eye-catching display that he now puts on for the Philadelphia Union, but when Brenden Aaronson made his debut for Bethlehem Steel FC against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC as a late first-half substitute in July 2017, there was a hint of what was to come. Aged 16 years, 8 months, and 23 days old, Aaronson completed 14 of 17 passes, made five recoveries and won 2 of 2 tackles in a tidy display.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Aaronson’s talent – which saw him record one goal and five assists in 24 appearances across the 2017 and 2018 Championship seasons – has found a much higher level. He enters this postseason after earning the No. 1 spot on MLSSoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 list and having made his U.S. Men’s National Team debut. After helping the Union claim the Supporters’ Shield, the playoffs will be his last hurrah for the club as he heads next to RB Salzburg in Austria in January. The 20-year-old dubbed the “Medford Messi” will be looking to go out on a high.
For Amadou Dia, the 2020 season’s theme tune may as well have been “The Second Time Around”. Selected in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Sporting Kansas City, Dia made 32 league appearances for the club before being traded to the Montreal Impact midway through the 2016 season. After having his option declined by the Impact at the end of 2016, the former Clemson standout then landed in Phoenix, and never looked back.
Dia became a key piece of the club’s new era, making 90 appearances in the regular season and playoffs – the most of any player in the Rising FC era – while helping the side win the 2018 Western Conference Title and 2019 Regular Season Title. Dia recorded a team-high 139 interceptions in his three seasons with Phoenix, recorded four goals, eight assists and 97 chances created and won the club’s Defender of the Year award twice. Those performances landed him back with SKC this year, and with 12 appearances – including eight starts in the club’s last nine games – the 27-year-old has come full circle for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
If you’ve kept an eye on the discussion around which players have made a big jump forward in Major League Soccer this year, Eryk Williamson is probably going to be high on a good number of lists. The 23-year-old has become a mainstay in the Timbers’ midfield this season, posting a career-high 21 appearances and notching three goals and five assists as Portland once again reached the postseason.
If you’d been watching Williamson play for the Timbers 2 over the past two seasons – during which time he remained in the picture for the United States U-23 National Team – you might have seen this coming. Williamson produced consistently for T2 with seven goals, 11 assists and 63 chances created in 34 appearances while completing 81.8 percent of passes and 70.2 percent of passes in the final third. Williamson still has more Championship appearances than MLS, but he’s going to be in the middle of things for Portland as it looks for a second MLS Cup.
It may have been brief, but Jackson Yueill’s time at Reno 1868 FC showed why he was such a highly-regarded prospect coming out of UCLA having been selected with the No. 6 pick of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes. Yueill made his professional debut in Reno’s inaugural contest against Orange County SC on March 25, 2017 and quickly impressed. Completing 85.1 percent of his passes overall and notching 10 key passes in six appearances, he was quickly recalled to San Jose to take the step into the top flight.
Since then, things have only accelerated for the 23-year-old. In 2019 he made his United States Men’s National Team debut and is now closing in on 100 appearances in Major League Soccer for the Quakes. As the midfield fulcrum in San Jose’s distinctive style, Yueill has been an essential part of San Jose’s return to the postseason in 2020. If the Quakes are going to end their helter-skelter season on a high note, the Minnesota native is going to be key to those efforts.
There might be no better example of the potential value that can be found in the Championship for Major League Soccer clubs than Mark-Anthony Kaye, whose two seasons with Louisville City FC – during which time he lifted the USL Championship Final trophy in 2017 – showed his potential to thrive in the top flight. Now a central part of LAFC’s midfield, at times this season taking the captain’s armband, Kaye is looking to become the next player to have league titles in the Championship and MLS on his resume this postseason.
Kaye’s road began with Toronto FC II, where he made 22 appearances in the 2015 season, but a shift to Louisville saw Kaye become a notable part of the club’s ascent in the Eastern Conference. The Canadian made 49 league appearances in the regular season and playoffs for LouCity, recording five goals and five assists, but his all-around play earned his first call-up to the Canada Men’s National Team in 2017. That offseason, LAFC acquired his services via transfer ahead of its inaugural season. With nine goals and 17 assists in 67 games, the 25-year-old has continued to rise in MLS and looks set to be a fixture for club and country for many years to come.
It’s fair to say that Ayo Akinola’s first full season in the Toronto FC lineup has been a success. After all, in 15 appearances for the Reds, the 20-year-old United States youth international has bagged more goals (9) than he did during three stints with Toronto FC II (8) across the Championship and League One while emerging from the club’s Academy. Akinola’s form has helped TFC maintain its position as one of the favorites for MLS Cup, averaging a goal every 118.1 minutes for the campaign as a whole in 2020.
Akinola was just 16 years old when he notched his first goals for TFC II during the 2016 Championship season, and then after a year in which his time was focused on competing for the United States at the FIFA U-17 World Cup – scoring five goals between Concacaf Qualifying and the World Cup itself – he returned to bag another five goals the following year for the Young Reds. Now he seems primed for the big stage as Toronto looks for its second MLS Cup in club history.
Before this season, there had only been one two-time Most Valuable Player in the Championship’s history, and Kevin Molino’s career since making the move to Major League Soccer with Orlando City SC in 2015 has shown why. The Trinidad & Tobago international – who recorded 27 goals and 22 assists in his 94 appearances for the Lions – has become a key player for the Loons, and helped the side this year earn a top-four finish in the Western Conference.
The danger Molino presented opposing defenses was best reflected in his 2012 MVP award, where he recorded only three goals and seven assists during the season but was consistently the most dangerous player on the field in most contests. The threat Molino brings has seen him record 32 goals and 27 assists in 104 regular-season appearances in Major League Soccer, including nine goals and four assists this year for MNUFC. If the Loons are to claim MLS Cup, Molino could have a big role to play.
Coming up through the New York Red Bulls organization, Brian White had always shown an eye for goal. In 2017 he was named the USL League Two MVP after scoring 17 goals to claim the league’s Golden Boot, and the following year after signing with the New York Red Bulls II after being selected with the No. 16 pick of the MLS SuperDraft by the Red Bulls he went on to notch 10 goals in 26 appearances in the Championship for a fine first pro year.
For a while this year, though, it looked like 2020 was going be a frustrating one. After recording nine goals for the Red Bulls in his first full year in the top-flight, the forward had struck only once in 13 appearances through mid-October this campaign. But if form is key to making a postseason run, White might have found his timing at just the right moment. Goals in four of New York’s last five games of the regular season not only helped the side clinch its playoff place but earn a top-six finish. As White and fellow Red Bulls II alumni including Aaron Long, Jared Stroud and Florian Valot look to lead their side on a postseason run, the 24-year-old enters as their leading scorer as he looks to rise to the occasion.