MLS Cup 2013 Preview: Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake

After a season which saw arguably the tightest play-off races in league history, the 2013 MLS campaign will conclude this Saturday when Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake square off in the 18th edition of the MLS Cup Final at Sporting Park, in Kansas City, Kansas, with bone-chilling temperatures predicted.

While SKC’s superior regular season record earned them the right to host the final, regardless of venue, the game should still be an evenly matched contest, featuring two well-run and admirable teams who play the most distinct styles of soccer in MLS.

One of the ten charter clubs of the league, SKC will be vying for their second MLS Cup, having beaten the Chicago Fire 1-0 in the 2000 final (back when they were still known as the Kansas City Wizards), with a line-up which boasted names such as Tony Meola, Preki and current head coach Peter Vermes. They would make the final again in 2004, only to lose 3-2 to D.C. United, but over the following seasons found success hard to come by, both on the field and off it, as a smaller-market club plagued by commercial and attendance issues.

After rebranding in the winter of 2010 however and opening their new stadium in mid-2011, the team which was once threatened with relocation has experienced a remarkable turnaround, which has some (admittedly bias folk) even rushing to dub Kansas City “Soccer City USA”, over the likes of the more celebrated Pacific Northwest teams, Portland and Seattle.

Thanks to the heady leadership of Vermes and the front office, SKC have transformed into one of the league’s better-run models and it’s just reward that they’ll take to the pitch on Saturday with the chance to add a second MLS Cup to their trophy cabinet.

On the other side, Jason Kreis’ RSL are on the hunt for their second championship in five years, after coming out on top in a penalty shootout against the LA Galaxy in 2009. Having established themselves as regular title-contenders over the past few seasons, they’ve got here by much the same SKC has – smart ownership decisions and savvy team-building.

Much speculation however persists over Kreis’ future, with his contract up at the end the year and rumours of a deal close to being struck with MLS’ soon-to-be 20th side, New York City FC. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that, if Kreis were to ultimately leave Utah for the bright lights of the Big Apple, the highly-lauded head coach deserves immense respect for what he has achieved during his seven seasons in charge. No more so has that been the case than in 2013, after off-season salary cap-cutting moves saw the club ship out established players Will Johnson, Jámison Olave and Fabián Espíndola, leaving many resigned to a rebuilding year. Instead, Kreis slotted in some youngsters and bit-part players and proceeded to do as he always does – lead the club to a 50-point-plus campaign. There’s no way of sugar-coating it – Kreis will be hugely missed in Salt Lake if does indeed go, but another MLS Cup victory would surely make the send-off just that bit easier to handle for supporters.

This MLS Cup final may ultimately lack the star power offered by Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, or the departed David Beckham for example, but it’s one which is certainly set up to be an interesting, tactical chess match between two distinctive sides. SKC play their unique style that is one of the most physical in MLS, aiming to put pressure on opposing defences by pushing forward and winning back possession as quickly as possible. On the other hand there’s RSL, whose passing and possession-oriented system has long been praised as one of the most atheistically-pleasing in the league and earned them many admirers over the years.

The two do have their similarities though – both relying on a sturdy defensive core, while possessing a number of creative options up front to go with as they see fit. In fact, the biggest team selection question mark remains over who RSL chose to play alongside Robbie Findley at forward – the healthy-again Álvaro Saborío, who has been the undisputed focal point of their attack for years, or the burly rookie Devon Sandoval, who has performed admirably stepping up for the injured Costa Rican DP? Whatever Kreis’ decision though, either option will still face a tough task coming up against the league’s stingiest defence in SKC, who conceded just 30 goals over the course of the regular season. It’s something which RSL too have prided themselves on over the years, leading many to wonder whether we may be in for a low-scoring affair on Saturday, despite the obvious creativity on display.

For all the talk of defence and firepower up top however, it’s in the midfield where both of these teams are so defined – RSL with their familiar diamond (Kyle Beckerman anchoring things in front of the back-four, while Javier Morales plays creator at the tip) and SKC with their middle three of former Barcelona academy product Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber, as Graham Zusi roams free around the last third of the pitch. Undoubtedly, this is where the most fascinating tactical battles will ensue, with the head-to-head match-ups on paper leaving things remarkably close to call.

British fans meanwhile will be pleased to discover that one of the x-factors on the day could well prove to be SKC’s English-born forward Dom Dwyer – a former product of Norwich City’s academy, who came over to the States to play college soccer. The club’s first-round SuperDraft pick in 2012, after scoring a boatload of goals on loan at USL Pro’s Orlando City SC, Dwyer has forced his way into SKC’s line-up during the second half of the season and grabbed the crucial goal against the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference final, which sent the side to MLS Cup. Now likely set to start at the centre of Sporting’s forward-line on Saturday over Claudio Bieler, Dwyer’s effort and work rate allows the team to keep up pressure on the RSL defence and counter at pace. He has his flaws finishing-wise but, in a close-fought game likely to be decided by the odd goal, chances are that Dwyer could pop up at some point and provide the crucial difference.

When the two sides met in July this season at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, it was SKC who came out on top with a 2-1 win over a depleted RSL side, with Ike Opara’s 97th-minute winner capping a physical game, marred by officiating errors.

While Salt Lake may be at full strength on Saturday, depending on the health of left-back Chris Wingert, I’d still expect to see a repeat of that scoreline, with Sporting on this occasion spurred on to victory by the fantastic support of their fans in “The Cauldron”.

Prediction: Sporting Kansas City 2 – 1 Real Salt Lake, with Dom Dwyer grabbing the game-winner.

  • Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake, Saturday 7th December, Sporting Park, 9:00 pm GMT, live on BT Sport 2

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