Real Salt Lake @ Sporting Kansas City
MLS Cup Final
Saturday, December 7, 2013; Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas
1:00 pm PT; ESPN
After 323 regular season matches and 14 playoff contests, the 2013 Major League Soccer season comes down to the final event on Saturday – the MLS Cup Final at Sporting Park where Kansas City will host Real Salt Lake. On paper, it looks like it will be a fiercely contested and evenly balanced battle between two detail-oriented teams that are also very fun to watch in the attack.
Here is the tale of the tape between the two MLS Cup finalists.
Goalkeeper: RSL has the steady presence of Nick Rimando and SKC is backed by the consistent shot-stopping of Jimmy Nielsen. Rimando finished the year with a 14-7-6 record and 1.04 goals against average, notching nine shutouts in his 27 starts. Nielsen’s 0.88 GAA was tops in MLS among goalkeepers with at least 20 starts and he added a 17-10-7 record and 13 shutouts in 34 matches. Both were finalists for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year as well. Nielsen won the 2012 U.S. Open Cup at Sporting Park, but Rimando has the MLS Cup experience to his credit. EDGE: RSL.
Defenders: Salt Lake underwent some change to a very strong defense when it traded Jamison Olave along with Fabian Espindola to the New York Red Bulls in the offseason. Nat Borchers has remained a solid presence at center back and has been joined in the middle by Chris Schuler and 19-year-old Carlos Salcedo. The rookie Salcedo was very good in his 12 starts, but RSL is seemingly better as a core with Schuler paired with Borchers, as has been the case through the MLS Cup Playoffs. On the outside Tony Beltran is consistent at right back while Lovel Palmer has been called upon in place of the injured Chris Wingert. Having Wingert at left back could be important for Salt Lake to win its second MLS Cup title. On the other side of the field, Kansas City has a rock-solid back four of Chance Myers on the right, Seth Sinovic on the left and a center back pair of Aurelien Colin and Matt Besler. Of that foursome, Besler had the fewest starts this season with 23, but was nevertheless voted MLS Best XI for the second straight season. The outside backs get forward a lot, Besler has a long throw and Colin is a threat in the box on set pieces, but also prone to costly fouls. EDGE: SKC.
Midfielders: Here, the teams use two different tactics with similar results. RSL employs a diamond-shaped midfield that uses its wide midfielders as box-to-box midfielders that crowd the middle of the field and funnel the ball to the playmaker, Javier Morales. SKC uses a three-man midfield with two men playing behind their connector, Benny Feilhaber. Both utilize hard-working players willing to put in the effort and sacrifice for the good of the team and the results cannot be argued. Salt Lake has more talent here, arguably, with Morales tallying eight goals and 10 assists and Luis Gil adding five goals and three assists along with five goals and five assists from Ned Grabavoy. In all of the years Jason Kreis has been with Salt Lake, this might be the most offensive that midfield has been. And those three are deeply reliant on holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who himself had four goals and six assists in 26 matches this season. He is the workhorse and the captain – the guy who pulls them up when they are down and keeps the pressure on when they are in the lead. For Kansas City, the tandem of Uri Rosell and Paolo Nagamura sits behind Feilhaber, a former U.S. international who fell out of favor in the middle of the season, but had a second-half resurgence and has played well in the postseason. EDGE: RSL.
Forwards: Salt Lake’s forward tandem will depend greatly on the health of Alvaro Saborio and Devon Sandoval, and while it is a position of depth for RSL, Kreis needs one of those two available to best execute his gameplan. Saborio had a fantastic season despite playing in only 16 matches due to injuries and international absences, scoring 12 goals to lead RSL. Robbie Findley has been a regular contributor, as has Joao Plata. However, no player started more the 19 games for them at forward, but they still managed to show some continuity. For Kansas City, Graham Zusi has pushed wide and is a fantastic distributor and playmaker for Peter Vermes. This team has so much depth that two of its regular contributors played matches this season on loan to Orlando City SC simply because Vermes couldn’t find the minutes for all of them. The loss of Kei Kamara to a midseason transfer should have hurt Kansas City, but instead, Dom Dwyer has had a breakout year and CJ Sapong has been a threat again in the playoffs. Claudio Bieler was a starter to begin the season, but the Argentine Designated Player has since relented that role to Dwyer in the postseason. Jacob Peterson, Teal Bunbury and Soony Saad also see time here for SKC, putting them in position to use several different methods of attack. Where this gets interesting is that both teams have the depth to throw players into the match late if they are in need of a goal. EDGE: SKC.
Coach: Both Kreis and Vermes are former MLS standouts and both have used their own styles to build hard-working teams that have been greatly successful. However, Kreis has more big-game experience, winning the 2009 MLS Cup, and has shown an ability to adjust on the fly. Vermes has done very well in the past to get Kansas City into the playoffs, but was bounced in 2011 and 2012 by the Houston Dynamo. SKC exorcised those demons in the Eastern Conference Championship, but did that take too much out of them? EDGE: RSL.