Changing of the guard: Biggest names taking a back seat in MLS Cup Playoffs

Keane off the bench. Drogba on the sidelines. Pirlo and Lampard battling injury. As Steve Davis notes, the 2016 playoffs have put the opening acts at center stage.

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MLS followers know the drill when it comes to marquee men at playoff time; handsomely paid stars have generally sprung up to rightfully lead the way. For instance, postseason time is Robbie Keane time. No one has been better at cranking things up to “11” on the runway to the postseason and then in the playoffs.

Which is no surprise. He’s a top earner and a Designated Player, which almost by definition earns the distinction of “difference maker.” Difference makers rise when the stakes rise, right?

It has usually been thus. Back in the day it was Dwayne De Rosario and Taylor Twellman guiding Houston and New England, respectively, to all of the championship games in the last decade – or so it seemed. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, still afforded cult figure status in Columbus soccer circles, ran the show as Sigi Schmid’s Crew claimed MLS Cup in 2008. U.S. men Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman were all that for RSL’s triumphant run in 2009.

David Beckham and Landon Donovan were large and in charge as LA won three titles in four years starting in 2011. There was no shortage of stars on those teams, either; Omar Gonzalez, on his way to becoming a World Cup starter, helped establish his own DP chops as MVP of the 2012 MLS Cup final.

So you get it. The headliners shine brightest when the playoff brackets are being filled out.

Most of the time, that is. Most of the time.

Because the 2016 playoffs feel different. So far, a cast of the MLS less heralded is spinning the 2016 postseason wheel. Nelson Valdez has been an unlikely hero in Seattle. In L.A., it’s Alan Gordon scoring and supplying all the nice hold-up play while Keane waits his turn. If you saw that coming – well, Minnesota United may still be looking for a coach.

David Villa didn’t just fail to score for NYCFC, he probably should have been a huge drag on the two-game project; for all the great stuff Villa has provided MLS in scoring and PR heft, the Spanish striker deserved red for his kick-out Sunday against Toronto FC.

And if we ran the numbers, folks who previously had heard of Matteo Mancosu would surely be out-numbered 100-1 over folks who knew of legendary Didier Drogba. So, of course it’s Mancosu hogging the headlines while the brooding Drogba, who got too big for his britches and had to go sit in timeout, tries to make amends by playing nice on social media.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Mancosu, a journeyman who has spent the bulk of his career at Italian teams most people couldn’t point to on a map, supplied two goals and an assist when Montreal opened a serious can days earlier at D.C. United. Turns out that his splashy night at RFK Stadium was just the appetizer; Sunday’s finish was brutally clinical, a full-volley screamer, a real striker’s strike.

Still early, but these are strange days

It’s early, of course – the playoffs go on and on, concluding more than two weeks after Thanksgiving. NYCFY’s Andrea Pirlo, injured for Sunday’s loss, could emerge from the dugout at Yankee Stadium and turn the series with a couple of his laser-guided precision passes. Or the Keane that we’ve all come to know, the one who runs the playoffs with the efficiency of German rail, could suddenly re-appear. Or Drogba could, well, appear.

But for now, it’s a case of “strange days, indeed.”

For instance: one MLS leading man who is progressively merging into a starring role can still be filed under “surprise.”  Because there are two types of people when it comes to pondering Landon Donovan’s 2016 career resurrection: those who admit to being surprised by all this and those are lying about it. Even the seriously prescient, those who may have suspected Donovan would yank himself off the sofa, surely had some doubt about whether a 34-year-old attacker could shake enough rust and all the crushing impact of too many brunch specials to contribute meaningfully. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but he has.

Donovan’s tidy passing and savvy soccer brain ran the midfield last week as Bruce Arena’s boys made short work of Real Salt Lake in the knockout round. He was less effective in the attack four days later against Colorado – understandably a bit out of gas – but still diligent in the important two-way work.

And Gordon getting it done? Don’t even pretend you saw that coming. Anymore than you saw Toronto’s FC’s Tosaint Ricketts appearing on the scoresheet before Sebastian Giovinco, easily the league’s top performer over the last two years.

Changing of the guard? Seems so

Maybe more than “strange,” even. These playoffs also have a changing of the guard feel.

Obviously, players cycle out every year, retiring so that the youngs and their springier legs can take their bows and wows. But there seems to be a clump – and the line forms behind the aforementioned Keane, among the mighty forces of recent playoff years.

It’s hard to say whether Keane’s time in Los Angeles is up, but there certainly is a “writing on the wall” feel. He’s 36 years old and out of contract. Just as importantly, fresh and spry Giovani dos Santos clearly is better when Keane isn’t on the field. Dos Santos, of course, is a star. But he’s a different star, and that’s the point. Dos Santos was provider of the game’s only goal Sunday against Colorado as Keane, once again, missed the starting assignment. Would any of us be shocked if Keane had scored his last postseason goal? (He’s got nine of ‘em now.)

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Davis, who won two MLS Cups and appeared in two other finals with the Dynamo, finished up on the Sporting KC sidelines as Peter Vermes’ team got dumped out controversially. Davis has announced his retirement, so his distinguished playoff run is done.

A night earlier we watched as Javier Morales probably ended his run in the sun at Real Salt Lake. Last year when Morales was 35 years old, we all gasped as the agile Argentine defied the sands of time. This year? He looked like a 36-year-old, fading meekly and probably all done at RSL, a club with lots of tough choices and probably some re-invention to ponder in the off-season.

Drogba? Not that he’s been around long enough to be an MLS playoff legend or anything, but he did cause a ruckus in 2015 (in a very good way) and again in 2016 (in a pretty lame way), and now his shift in chopping MLS wood seems finished.

No sleeping in Seattle

Speaking of “changing the guard.” Up the coast, some of Seattle’s playoff success so far is about Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan international certainly did his part to drive the Sounders to the playoffs, and his place going forward in the teeming scene around CenturyLink is assured. But in the two wins, less likely heroes keep popping up. That starts with Valdez, who spent the last 12 months banging posts and missing sitters. But there he was last week, offside, but still banging in the late winner against Sporting KC. Then he beat Dallas’ defense to the far post to initiate Sunday’s telling rout.  

Seattle attacked down the left mercilessly, more or less abandoning the right side. So it was Morris and left back Joevin Jones, a Trinidad and Tobago international but hardly a household name, who tormented the Supporters Shield winners. Yes, that Joevin Jones.

Morris, of course, is the presumptive MLS Rookie of the Year. Clint Dempsey may be done, but Morris and Lodeiro could be rippin’ and roarin’ around CenturyLink for years to come. Maybe Jones, too.

In Montreal, Mancosu has the highlight reel, but Patrice Bernier, Marco Donadel and goalkeeper Evan Bush were all sharp, focused and big in the right moments as Montreal gained a tenuous hold on its home-and-away set with the Red Bulls. Meanwhile, regular season assist leader Sacha Kljestan was double- and triple-teamed. Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips might give back that scoring prize if he could exchange it somehow for the missed sitter in Sunday’s dying moments. What a gem that would have been, a road goal at the death, and a potential series turner.

Wright-Phillips wasn’t “bad” so much as Impact center backs Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera were unyielding. Again, it’s early. But so far, the lesser known likes of Cabrera, Mancosu, Bernier and Bush are out-performing the award winners (Kljestan and Wright-Phillips).

Again, there's still time for a Frank Lampard, a Jermaine Jones, a Wright-Phillips or a Kljestan to rise and smite the lesser-knowns, the would-be heroes. And here’s a little tip: All of those guys are playing at home this week in return legs. So normalcy could be restored. If not, well, this will be the MLS playoffs known for producing new postseason stars, not for further promotion of the old ones.

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Steve Davis’ column, America’s Game, appears on FourFourTwo USA each week. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.