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EJ and Valeri are shouldering a big load
by Paul Kennedy, September 23rd, 2013 4:15AM

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[MLS: Starting XI] New York and Seattle held on to their conference leads, while Portland earned a critical win in its bid to earn its first playoff berth. Eddie Johnson and Diego Valeri have been carrying the Sounders and Timbers, respectively, while Luis Robles continues to make big saves for the Red Bulls. Here's who we'll be talking about and hope to hear from on Monday ...

11. STEVEN LENHART. The Quakes forward didn't endear himself to Rio Tinto Stadium fans, pumping his fist in the air after scoring each of his goals that gave San Jose a 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake that kept it in the playoff hunt. He was booed after leaving the game with his sixth multi-goal game of his MLS career.
 
10. C.J. SAPONG. The 2011 Rookie of the Year has regained his form after a mid-season trip to USL PRO's Orlando City, scoring his first brace of the season to lead Sporting KC past Toronto FC, 2-1. He has three goals in his past two games after scoring just once in his first 19 games.

9. LEE NGUYEN. Nguyen went from goat to hero, converting a late penalty kick to give New England a 2-1 win over D.C. United that moved the Revs back above the red line. The goal came about a half hour after D.C. keeper Bill Hamid had saved Nguyen’s first penalty kick.
 
8. CAMILO. The Brazilian was benched after scoring just one goal in his last seven games, but he came on to score two late goals to clinch Vancouver's 3-0 win over Montreal. The goals gave him 16, tied for second with Chicago's Mike Magee in MLS behind Marco Di Vaio's 18 goals for Montreal.

7. CARYLE MITCHELL. The Trinidadian was shipped off to the NASL's FC Edmonton early in the season, but he has become a key member of the Vancouver backline with the spate of injuries to its center backs. Alongside Jay DeMerit, starting his first game since the season opener, Mitchell helped shut down Di Vaio, who went scoreless against Vancouver in three games this season.

6. MARCO SCHALLIBAUM. The Swiss coach has already been suspended four times this season and will likely be suspended a fifth time after his outburst after the Impact's loss at home to Vancouver. Furious that a penalty awarded to the Impact was overturned after referee Jorge Gonzalez consulted with his assistant, Schallibaum told the Impact's French-speaking reporters, "C’est un scandale."

5. OSCAR BONIEK GARCIA. The Honduran international, who was instrumental in Houston's push to MLS Cup 2012 after arriving in mid-season, was scoreless this season until he broke out for two goals in the Dynamo's 5-1 win over Chivas USA that left it four points clear in the Eastern Conference playoff zone with five games to play.

4. BRIAN BLISS. Bliss only carries the interim coach tag for now, but he is making a strong case for earning the Columbus Crew head coaching job in place of Robert Warzycha with three wins in four games, the latest a 3-0 victory over Chicago that kept the Crew within striking distance of a playoff berth.

3. LUIS ROBLES. The New York Red Bulls haven't exactly overpowered their opponents en route to four straight wins that propelled them into the lead in the Supporters' Shield race, but a key has been the play of Robles, who wasn't sure of being the No. 1 choice in goal this season. His shutout in the 1-0 win over FC Dallas gives him 10 for the season, tied for the MLS lead.

2. DIEGO VALERI. The Argentine has the 2013 MLS Newcomer of the Year all but wrapped up. His 20-yard chip was the difference as Portland beat Colorado, 1-0, for three points its desperately needed to stay in the playoff zone. How important has he been to Portland? Of the Timbers' last 17 goals, he has scored four and assisted on eight.



1. EDDIE JOHNSON. With buddy Clint Dempsey scoreless since arriving in Seattle and now sidelined with a hamstring injury, EJ has been carrying the Seattle Sounders with his prowess in the air. Johnson, whose header was the winning goal in the USA's 2-0 win over Mexico that clinched a berth in the World Cup finals, won games against Columbus and Portland right before the World Cup qualifier with headers, and he eluded national team defender Omar Gonzalez to score on a wide-open header that opened the scoring in a 1-1 tie with the LA Galaxy that increased the Sounders' lead in the Western Conference to two points (with two games in hand).


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