The MLS Cup Finals* will feature rematch of one of the best games of the season: Sporting Kansas City 2, Real Salt Lake 1.
The Kansas City Star
*Dec. 7th at Sporting Park if you've not heard yet.
It's also one of the best under-the-national-radar match-ups the league can offer: A rivalry between two small-market teams with passionate fan bases and radically different approaches to playing soccer. While it might lack the marquee names that MLS and ESPN executives were hoping for, this might just be something better: A highly competitive and highly charged match between two teams who have done a lot right over the last three years and just might not like each other very much.
The last time these two faced off was on July 20th in Sandy, Utah. It featured 26 fouls, seven yellow cards, one ejection and a winning goal from Ike Opara the 97th minute. The tone was set early on when Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert executed an NFL-worthy tackle on Kei Kamara. Wingert earned a yellow card for that challenge in the third minute. He would earn another to send RSL down a man in the 66th minute.
At the time of that showdown, the teams were in first and second place in the league. The main talking point afterward wasn't Kansas City's big win but the referee, a relatively inexperienced Matthew Foerster, drawing the ire of Salt Lake's Jason Kreis.
Neither team was at full strength, thanks to the Gold Cup. Kansas City was without Matt Besler while Salt Lake played without Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio. Paulo Nagamura for KC and Chris Schuler for RSL were the other notable omissions.
It's not a rivalry based as much on hatred though, there was a lightly-reported about bench-clearing brawl during the 2011 preseason between the teams as it is based on geographic/organizational similarities and vastly differing styles.*
*They both have the most European-sounding names in the league: Real and Sporting.
Both small-market teams feature young coaches (Kreis is 40, Peter Vermes is 47) who played in Major League Soccer both were part of the inaugural MLS season in 1996 and both played for the team they currently coach.
Both men were also given the task of installing a system and establishing an identity. Kreis installed a possession-based attack; Vermes the high-pressure system. Salt Lake is known for fostering creativity and finding attacking talent; Kansas City for its superior fitness and ability to rehabilitate defensive players.
To make matters more interesting, Salt Lake's boss had some things to say about the stylistic differences. Last year, Kreis said he wasn't a fan of KC's pressure and fouling game.
Salt Lake's general manager Garth Lagerwey a former Kansas City Wizard painted a picture earlier this summer of a battle between a team that likes to play soccer versus a team that "kick people, pressure you all over the field and try to rely on set pieces and turnovers to generate their chances." (That article above is a must-read this morning.)
Lagerwey isn't completely wrong, for what it's worth: Kansas City led the league in fouls, Salt Lake in possession.*
*The irony, of course, is that it was Wingert and Salt Lake that played the physical game early in the match this summer. It's also slightly interesting that, this year, Sporting was second only to RSL in terms of average possession. While Salt Lake tended to foul less** (middle of the table with 11.8 per game KC averaged 15), they had seven red cards to KC's one.
** Sub-note: The total fouls in each of the last five matches in this series: 23, 26, 34, 27 and 26. Real Salt Lake had more fouls than Sporting in three of those games.
Despite both being on top of the table back in July, neither were MLS Cup favorites when the playoffs began. Kansas City had to exorcise its Houston demons while Salt Lake needed to get through the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy and the Western Conference's best team in the Portland Timbers.
While neither is a big surprise to be in this spot (both have been at or near the top of the league the last few seasons) both did undergo major roster changes this year. Salt Lake jettisoned veterans Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola to make room on the pitch for exciting youngsters like Chris Schuler, Luis Gil and Devon Sandoval. Kansas City saw two of its best players Roger Espinoza and Kamara find new homes in England.
Yet, here we are. Both reshaped and revamped. Both suffered dips in form. Both survived. And, at Sporting Park on Dec. 7, these two on-field rivals who play contrasting styles with inventive former MLS players turned coaches will have 90 minutes to settle up.
For what it's worth, Kansas City has a slight edge in the results over the last five seasons in this series with three wins, a draw and two losses. Kansas City is 2-0 all-time against Salt Lake at Sorting Park and have not allowed a goal to RSL in either game.