MLS Playoff analysis: 4 key players stepping up in the postseason

Quick Hits
  • Only four teams remain in the MLS playoffs, with Austin FC, Los Angeles FC, New York City FC, and the Philadelphia Union vying for spots in MLS Cup
  • Let’s highlight four key players – one from each team – who have been pivotal to their team’s success

My friends, we’re only two games away from MLS Cup. The playoffs this year have been wildly entertaining. With Austin FC, Los Angeles FC, New York City FC, and the Philadelphia Union all battling this weekend, I’m profiling one player from each team who has had a huge impact on their team’s playoff success and breaking down how they’re being used on the field to their team’s advantage. 

Let’s get at it.

All stats courtesy of American Soccer Analysis unless otherwise noted.

Brad Stuver, GK, Austin FC

While NYCFC’s Sean Johnson and Philadelphia’s Andre Blake have put together some great performances in the playoffs, Brad Stuver has made a strong case for the best goalkeeping performance in the playoffs so far. He’s one of the reasons Austin FC is in the Western Conference Finals.

In the first round, Stuver utterly dominated the decisive penalty shoot-out to prevent Pablo Masteroni from RSLing his way to the next round. Real Salt Lake only managed to convert a single penalty in that one because of it. 

Then, in the playoff edition of the Texas Derby, Stuver helped seal the deal by making several key saves including a point-blank reaction save in the 86th minute to prevent FC Dallas from equalizing.

Stuver’s playoff performance has been the icing on the cake of a 2022 campaign that has seen him enter the league’s goalkeeping elite. Stuver’s mercurial rise culminates a journey that took him from the MLS Pool keeper in 2013 to journeyman backup with the Columbus Crew (2013-17) and NYCFC (2018-20). Stuver only had nine total regular season appearances to his name before Austin signed him in their 2021 expansion year. Since then, Stuver’s run away with Los Verde’s starting keeper job.

The goalkeeper position is an essential one for Austin. From day one, manager Josh Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna sought to install a positional style of play. A core part of that style involves the ‘keeper actively participating in the possession-passing game. A known quantity to Reyna from his time at NYCFC, Stuver is one of the best passing keepers in the league. This season, Stuver finished second in the league in ASA’s goals-added goalkeeper passing metric and was very active with the sixth most passes among all goalkeepers (1,173).

In the build-up phase, Stuver will step up to form a quasi-back-three with center backs Ruben Gabrielsen and Julio Cascante flaring out wide. Defending teams essentially have to account for an additional player in their pressing scheme which opens up additional space in the midfield and allows Austin to progress the ball to the attacking third more effectively.

While Stuver had a reputation for being excellent with his feet before this season, no one expected the elite shot-stopping that we have seen this year. During the 2022 regular season, Stuver saved 4.02 more goals than expected only behind Dorde Petrovic, Andre Blake, and Aljaz Ivacic.

With a pair of great performances so far in the playoffs, Stuver in net will give Austin FC a fighting chance against any team in MLS.

Denis Bouanga, W, LAFC

While the signings of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini garnered a ton of headlines, the acquisition of Designated Player Denis Bouanga was the best move that LAFC made this summer. 

Bouanga only scored a single goal in 556 regular season minutes, but the underlying numbers absolutely love him. Of players with at least 500 minutes, Bouanga finished the season averaging 0.67 expected goals per 96 minutes with only Valentin Castellanos (0.79) and William Agada (0.73) finishing with better marks.

Despite the lack of goalscoring in limited playing time, it’s obvious that Bounaga has all the tools to be one of the best attackers in MLS. He has the speed to stretch the field vertically (which is increasingly important with Vela slowing down), the technical ability to beat fullbacks one-on-one by cutting inside for a shot or getting to the optimal assist zone, the physicality to create pockets of space to receive the ball, the fluidity to be able to interchange anywhere in the attack, and the intelligence to know when to make devastating attacking runs off the ball.

It’s safe to say that Bounaga’s brace against the LA Galaxy in the conference semi-finals was not an anomaly.

Instead, it fit perfectly into the Gabonese international’s skillset. For the first goal, Bouanga bodied a center back to create a passing window for an uncontested shot inside the box. For the second goal, Bouanga saw that the back post was going to be wide open after right back Julian Araujo overextended upfield. Bounaga then slowed down to perfectly time his run with the incoming cross for an easy tap-in.

If Bouanga gets going offensively, LAFC will be very hard to contain in the attacking third. With all the talent that they have, they should be favorites to reach MLS Cup.

Jose Martinez, CDM, Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union set a record this season for the fewest goals allowed (26) in the history of MLS. And with that defensive success, they won a lot of awards. Jim Curtin won Coach of the Year, Andre Blake won Goalkeeper of the Year, Jakob Glesnes won Defender of the Year (but perhaps his center back partner Jack Elliot was even better), and Kai Wagner was the DPOY runner-up and a shoo-in for the Best XI.

However, one player who was pivotal both to the Union’s success this season and the 1-0 victory over FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference semifinals won’t be getting any individual awards this season. That player is defensive midfielder Jose Martinez. 

The Philadelphia Union are defined by their press out of a 4-4-2 diamond formation. As the lone defensive midfielder, Martinez has a tremendous amount of responsibility to help the Union play their way. Martinez is Philly’s ballhawk in the press. As the press corrals the ball into areas that generate turnovers, it’s largely on Martinez to get into the passing lanes to pick off wayward passes and gobble up second or third balls.

On the offensive side of the ball, Philadelphia may be one of the most narrow teams in MLS. In the 4-4-2 diamond, the fullbacks Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo are the main width providers in the attacking third. It’s usually Martinez covering for those players on the defensive end when they’re on the attacking end of the field.

When a team is in the playoffs and needs to win with grit, players like Martinez are what they need to do it.

Santiago Rodriguez, Attacker, NYCFC

The big story for NYCFC this season has been the question of replacing Castellanos’ scoring prowess after his transfer to Girona. With six goals in two games, the NYCFC goalscoring machine has returned for the playoffs. What’s more is NYCFC are doing this without their best attacker, Talles Magno, or best midfielder, Keaton Parks, in the starting lineup.

One of the engines of NYCFC’s increased postseason scoring output has been midfielder Santiago Rodriguez. Rodriguez had key involvements in five of NYCFC’s six playoff goals and currently leads all players in the playoffs in expected assists (2.14), primary assists (3), and key passes (8).

Rodriguez gives NYCFC a tremendous amount of positional flexibility with his ability to play either wing or drop into the No. 10 role to spell the aging Maxi Moralez, but the Uruguayan definitely feels more comfortable when he’s in the middle of the pitch. In recent weeks, NYCFC has shifted to a lopsided 3-4-3. This creates some great synergy with Rodriguez’s natural tendency to drift inside as a central playmaker, since he has less responsibility to provide width in the attacking third with overlapping wingbacks.

On the defensive end, Rodriguez has been able to cover for Maxi Moralez’s declining physical attributes by tracking back on defense to allow Moralez to stay forward. He applies heavy pressure in NYCFC’s counter press and progresses the ball in transition via the dribble or pass.

NYCFC will once again have some big questions to answer this offseason, but who will step up to replace Maxi when the maestro finally retires will not be one of them.

With a pair of heavyweight matchups on the docket this Sunday in the Conference Finals, Brad, Denis, Jose, and Santi will need to continue their heroic performances. It could be the difference between a trip to MLS Cup and a trip to their couch at home.