The possibility of lifting MLS Cup on Dec. 9 is plenty of motivation for the 16 teams vying to collect that prize. For a fair number of the players comprising each squad, though, there's more at stake this postseason than just silverware.
For some, it's the "last dance": one last stand with the team they've made a career with, before moving on. Some seek the spotlight of Europe, playing for that career-changing move abroad once the winter window comes. For others, as their contracts near completion, they'll be looking to cash in on free agency within MLS once this playoff run is done.
Who are some of the names that might play with added emotion, aspiration or weight as the playoffs continue on? Here are four players with more at stake than just a shot at MLS Cup.
Miles Robinson | 26 | Center-back | Atlanta United
When Robinson ruptured his achilles in May 2022, it sent a few things into disarray, including the Atlanta United backline, Gregg Berhalter's World Cup starting XI and expectations Robinson might have had in earning himself a move abroad. Now back and fully fit, the 26-year-old center-back will be playing for a move abroad in the winter with a renewed focus and an urgency that stems from the knowledge that the time to move to Europe is running out.
With his contract expiring at the end of this season, Robinson has been linked repeatedly to PSV Eindhoven, where numerous Americans already reside under the oversight of technical director (formerly of the Philadelphia Union and U.S. Soccer) Earnie Stewart.
Brandon Vázquez | 25 | Forward | FC Cincinnati
The 25-year-old United States striker has been vocal about his interest in moving abroad. On a recent episode of Offside with Taylor Twellman, the Supporters' Shield-winning forward from an ascendant FC Cincinnati side said he hopes to, "Bring Cincinnati a championship and then, yeah, make the jump overseas."
Coming off a staggering 18 goals in a blistering 2022 campaign, Vázquez has had a relatively modest eight goals and two assists for the orange and blue in 2023. As manager Pat Noonan recently told FC Cincinnati's website, though, "He does so many little things well that will go unnoticed because the expectation is for him to continue scoring goals like he has for the past couple of years."
Borussia Monchengladbach have held long-term interest in the striker and traveled to observe his on- and off-ball impact in person earlier this year. Rampant transfer rumors floated around this past summer, but it seems a winter move may appeal.
Whether to the Bundesliga or elsewhere, Vázquez seems focused on playing for a move in this year's playoffs. "I think if I want to make the 2026 World Cup roster, I think I have to be overseas competing in the best leagues in the world," he told Twellman's podcast.
Alan Velasco | 21 | Midfielder | FC Dallas
Now one of three Argentina internationals plying their trade in MLS, Velasco has been linked to an eventual move to Europe since signing for Dallas in 2022.
The 21-year-old creative conductor with an unpredictable flourish and prescient eye is also a versatile force, and one destined for foreign shores. The question here is of timing and price. Velasco was signed for a club-record transfer fee, widely reported to be $7 million, from Independiente in Argentina. FC Dallas would need to see a figure convincingly north of that number this winter to let go of the Young Designated Player who remains under contract through the 2025 season with an option for 2026.
Entering the postseason with four goals and two assists in 2023, Velasco possesses the potential to change a match in an instant. If he were to turn this postseason on its head, he may well seal that inevitable move.
Noel Buck | 18 | Midfielder | New England Revolution
The Revs' 18-year-old homegrown midfielder will need to wade through an infamously tough-to-play-against Philadelphia Union side to make a deep playoff run, but the England U19 international (who's also eligible to represent the U.S. and Wales) may already have warranted a new fate this winter.
With three goals and one assist in 2023, Buck has earned his minutes in Major League Soccer with his ability to defend tenaciously while also controlling the ball and impacting games in the attacking third.
In possession of an English passport, Buck has been linked with a variety of Premier League clubs. According to The Athletic's Tom Bogert, that list includes Manchester City, Arsenal, Burnley and a handful of Bundesliga sides to boot.