The stage is set and the final is upon us, for what should be one of the best MLS cups in recent history. 2009 MLS champions Real Salt Lake will travel to the fortress that is Sporting Park on Saturday afternoon to face Sporting KC. You can catch the game on ESPN at 4 p.m. EST. If the betting odds are to be believed Sporting KC is the clear cut favorite, RSL won’t make it easy though.
Real Salt Lake
The western conference team finished out the 2013 MLS regular season with a total of 56 points, leaving them in second place behind the Portland Timbers. RSL’s playoff campaign saw them play two of the toughest teams in MLS (Portland Timbers, Los Anagles Galaxy), but they were able to fend them off with ease. The Royals started off on a shaky note with a 1-0 loss in Los Angeles but quickly struck back at the Rio Tinto with a 2-0 win, with goals courtesy of Sebastian Velasquez and Chris Schuler. RSL remained at the RIOT to take on conference leaders Portland Timbers. They fended off the Timbers with a 4-2 win. They put the last dagger through Portland with a 1-0 win at Portland’s home ground to seal their tickets to KC.
Sporting KC’s story sounds very much like RSL’s. KC also finished second in their conference on 58 points, behind NY Red Bulls. Their playoff journey also started with an unnerving 2-1 loss away at New England. Sporting was able to harness the energy of Sporting Park to put 3 past New England in an exciting 3-1 win. KC then traveled to Houston in the finals and managed a stale 0-0 draw. Returning back home they yet again used the energy to propel them to 2-1 win in leg 2 to see them through to the cup.
These are the teams used during the teams last playoff fixture. Expect a few tweaks.
Real Salt Lake- Nick Rimando; Lovel Palmer, Chris Schuler, Nat Borchers, Tony Beltran; Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, Javier Morales; Robbie Findley, Devon Sandoval
Note: Leading scorer Alvaro Saborio should be returning from injury, likely replacing Sandoval.
Sporting KC: Jimmy Nielsen; Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber; Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury, Jacob Peterson
Perhaps the only thing to separate these two teams is Sporting’s home field advantage. Unlike European leagues, the final will not be held at neutral ground. The MLS implements a weird points based system which allows Sporting to hold the Cup due to two little points. Will this broken system prove fatal for RSL though? I wouldn’t be so sure. RSL has won a respectable six road games but has also lost seven. Kansas City has managed to come away with 9 wins and three draws at home with five loses. In the corresponding regular season fixture at the RIOT, Sporting KC came away with a 2-1 win.
- Sporting KC
This should be one of the most tense MLS Cups we have had yet. Both clubs are firing on all cylinders coming into the game. Kansas City proved their spot as one of the best defensive teams in MLS, by holding Houston to just one goal. Their 36 year-old Dutch keeper Jimmy Nielsen has also been on peak form all season, despite his age. But the defensive qualities aren’t all Sporting has. Their attacking game also appears to hitting full stride. Team USA star Graham Zusi has been constantly in the right position at the right time to set up strikers Claudio Bieler nad Kei Kamara who have been a great finishers in the playoffs.
- Real Salt Lake
On the other hand, you have the leagues second highest scoring team in RSL. Upfront Salt Lake has some of the best talents in the league in Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, and Joao Plata. These three have played with the heads of defensive lines all year long, and after putting five in the back of the net against Portland, look as dangerous as ever. They’ve been able to play all over the pitch with great service from Kyle Beckerman and the rest of the RSL midfield. Their Goalkeeping is also great with RSL legend Nick Rimando performing at a high level.
Although the RSL attack is one of the most potent in the league, and it would be ridiculous to suggest they won’t score, I don’t think they have one more win in them. The suffocating defense of Sporting KC should be able the hold them to one or two goals. With the KC strikers finally clicking, they’ll look to exploit the average defense of Real Salt Lake. Expect an intense game with passionate fans. Its hard to give a specific score for this one but it will likely only be separated by one goal. I give the slight edge to Sporting, but expect RSL to give one heck of a fight to try and win their second cup in five years.