Sporting Kansas City versus Real Salt Lake isn’t a rivalry. It’s more like a bitter feud based on a little bit of bad blood, a lot of similarities and major philosophical differences.
It’s also one of the best match-ups the league can offer: Two highly competitive small-market teams with dedicated owners, passionate fan bases and young head coaches with clear soccer identities. Also, the games are usually intense. The last five games between these two teams have averaged 4.6 yellow cards and 27.2 fouls per game, as well as two red cards.
In order to figure out which team will come out on top Saturday and claim the MLS Cup, we’ll need to break the matchup down to its core components.The Attack
Led by Alvaro Saborio (12 goals), Javier Morales (eight) andRobbie Findley
(six), Salt Lake finished the season with 57 goals (second-most in the league). Kansas City finished near the middle of the league with 47 goals. Leading scorer Claudio Bieler (10), however, has just two goals since Aug. 1 and lost his spot in the Starting XI. The team’s second-leading scorer for the season is Kei Kamara (seven), and he left town in September. Since then, Kansas City has had just four multigoal games. Dom Dwyer, who replaced Bieler, scored the game-winning goal against Houston.
RSLCase for Defense
For the second year in a row, the back line of Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin,Matt Besler
and Seth Sinovic posted the league’s best defense (30 goals allowed) and conceded the fewest shots (8.9 per game). It doesn’t have the same gaudy numbers (41 goals allowed), but Salt Lake’s defense has been good when it counted in the playoffs, shutting out both Los Angeles and Portland in the deciding second legs. Nat Borchers has been the rock in the center along with All-Star fullback Tony Beltran.
Jason Kreis is one of the youngest up-and-coming coaches in America. He’s also on the sartorial vanguard, eschewing the traditional track suit/polo look for tailored suits or patterned shirt/tie combos. Peter Vermes has been known to support both sides, but, when it comes to big games, he brings out the suits. Of course, it won’t matter if both are hunkered down inside of parkas to combat the cold temperatures expected Saturday.
All goalkeepers are eccentric by nature. While Nick Rimando has a lot of great ink on his arms and likes to play with the ball at his feet,Jimmy Nielsen
is about as wild as it comes in MLS. His preferred jersey color — and the color he’ll wear Saturday — is hot pink.
This is for my amateur tacticians out there: This is, essentially, a geometrical battle between diamonds and triangles. Salt Lake’s preferred formation (a 4-4-2 with the midfielders packed in tight in the shape of a diamond) is designed to control the ball in the middle of the park and move the ball around the beleaguered defense/midfield. Salt Lake rarely is out-possessed in a match, ever. Kansas City’s preferred formation (4-3-3 with the three midfielders constantly re-arranging themselves into different triangles) is designed to place pressure higher up the field to control the ball in the attacking half and harass the beleaguered defense/midfield into making mistakes. Kansas City is rarely out-possessed in a match at Sporting Park.
PushDisgruntled Designated Players
Both coaches have a potential selection headache: Highly paid leading scorers who have been usurped in the starting lineup by unheralded youngsters playing well in the playoffs. For KC, Bieler has been out of favor as Dwyer has led the line for Vermes. Salt Lake’s Saborio has been injured, leaving the door open for rookie Devon Sandoval to play and he’s been electric. Saborio is fully fit, while Bieler is healthy but probably not in the best of fitness.
On one side, you’ve gotKyle Beckerman’s tangle of dreadlocks and Sebastian Velasquez’s modern-twist on the mullet/rat-tail combination. It screams “hipster punks.” On the other, you’ve got the roguishly unkempt mane of Graham Zusi
and the close-cropped-with-fuzzy-porn-stache Benny Feilhaber. It screams “mismatched ’80s cop show.” Dreads are cool. Mustaches, unless you’re Tom Selleck, not so much.
Rio Tinto Stadium is, affectionately and awesomely, nicknamed the RioT. The atmosphere is crazy and Salt Lake had a ridiculous 34-game unbeaten streak (in all competitions) from 2010-11. Sporting Park, which doesn’t have a cool nickname yet, is quickly becoming one of the most prolific soccer-specific stadiums in this country, hosting the MLS All-Star Game, a U.S. men’s World Cup qualifying match and now the MLS Cup. The atmosphere is crazy and Kansas City has posted 35 straight sellouts.
SKC, barely.Euro-Sounding Name
In this insistence, “real” does not mean the opposite of “fake.” It’s pronounced “RAY-all” and is “borrowed” from, most famously, Spanish club Real Madrid. It roughly translates to royal or kingly. Exactly the words you’d use to describe Utah. Kansas City “borrowed” it’s name “Sporting” from, most famously, Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. It’s a fancy way to say “sports club.”
RSL, barelyColors and Kits
The primaries for each team are both above-average for MLS. Both prominently feature the team’s signature color (“claret” for RSL, “Sporting” blue for SKC) with a full-sleeve of its accent color (“cobalt” for RSL, “indigo” for SKC). Whatever happened to calling colors red and blue? This is why we shouldn’t let designers and marketing folks name things.
Push.Local Beer of Choice
Beer and soccer really go hand-in-hand. While Salt Lake brewery Uinta makes some fine brews (recommended: Cutthroat Pale Ale), there’s a reason that Belgium super-brewery Duvel wanted to buy our local Boulevard Brewing Company: It’s good and it’s growing. Boulevard is the “official craft beer” of Sporting Kansas City.