RSL Heads to Kansas City for MLS Cup 2013 Rematch

The thought of playing Sporting KC again after two unfortunate defeats last season causes me to realize that the pit left in my stomach after December’s MLS Cup loss hasn’t gone away.  And if you feel like the pit in your stomach has gone away (or you’re a Sporting fan and want to relive the…*gulp*…magic), let me help you get that feeling back.  (Personal confession: even though that video is well produced, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it all the way through.  Perhaps I can’t watch it because it’s so well produced.)

Feeling sufficiently gut-wrenched now?  Good, because Real Salt Lake has a chance to exact a small measure of revenge on their MLS Cup 2013 rivals this Saturday as the Claret-and-Cobalt travel to Sporting Park for a rematch with the team that beat them after 10 rounds of penalty kicks last December 7.

Sporting KC in Brief

Sporting is off to a decent start to the season, sitting on 7 points after wins at home against San Jose and on the road at Colorado.  The Colorado win was impressive, as Sporting showed resilience in overcoming a deficit created by two Colorado penalty kicks to win in second-half stoppage time.  Sporting could well have 8 points were it not for Seattle’s Chad Barrett (who?) stealing a win on the final play of SKC’s season opener.

Unfortunately for Kansas City, their CONCACAF dreams—SKC had stated their intention to prioritize Champions League play—came crashing down in the Champions League quarterfinals.  After gaining a 1-0 advantage in the home leg of their series against Cruz Azul, Sporting went down to Mexico to receive a 5-1 thumping for a 5-2 aggregate loss.  Perhaps the loss has served Sporting’s early-season league focus well, as SKC has taken 6 points (2-0-0) after their Champions League loss while only logging one point (0-1-1) prior.

It’s early in the season, and Sporting KC haven’t exactly been scoring at will, averaging just over a goal per game through four games, but their ability to create chances in the box with the assistance of Graham Zusi will mean that Kansas City remains a dangerous team throughout the 2014 season.  Much of their offense has come through striker Dom Dwyer, who leads Sporting with 2 goals and 14 shots on the season (6 more shots than second-place Sal Zizzo).  Both Dwyer goals this season (one a PK) have been game winners, so if you’re keeping track, KC is 2-0-0 when Dwyer scores and 0-1-1 when he does not.

Also, Sporting KC is anecdotally known for their physical style of play.  That common belief is borne out by the statistics: Sporting led the league in fouls last season and is currently leading the league in fouls this season.  Two players registered a double-digit number of yellow cards last year: Oriol Rosell (10) and Aurelien Collin (13), both of Sporting KC.  Yet, counterintuitively, Sporting KC only received a single red card, issued to C.J. Sapong for stupidly kicking a ball at an opponent lying on the turf.

All signs point to yet another physical match from Sporting KC.

Real Salt Lake in Brief

RSL is coming off a 3-0 dump-trucking of Toronto FC at Rio Tinto Stadium which featured an Alvaro Saborio brace and a Luis Gil goal that was made beautiful by the buildup that preceded it.  For the first time this season, the home side looked completely comfortable for 90 minutes, as RSL dominated possession in both halves and Javier Morales fully displayed the creativity for which he has become known.

The question, then, is how that comfort will translate on the road at SKC, the most hostile road environment RSL will have faced so far this season.  Last year’s MLS Cup playoffs showed that RSL is capable of delivering solid performances under pressure on the road (1-0 victory at Portland and 1-1 at Sporting after regulation and extra time).  Real Salt Lake played the role of road warriors last season, taking 22 of their 56 regular season points from road matches.

Another critical question for RSL prior to any match with a physical opponent is whether the referee will call a tight game.  In general, where referees have allowed physical play, RSL has struggled, as the team’s passing-based offense and reliance on creative playmakers is hindered when opposing players can simply knock Javier Morales off the ball without being disciplined.

With that in mind, tomorrow’s center official will be Armando Villarreal.  Villarreal called 22 games last season, dishing out 67 yellow cards and 6 red cards.  His average yellow cards per game (3.0) places him in the middle of the pack among PRO referees.  In the four Sporting KC matches he officiated, Villarreal gave out 5 yellow cards in each of them.  Sporting received two yellows in each of its two home matches and four yellows in each of its two road matches.

Villarreal also officiated two RSL matches last year: a 2-0 June home victory over Seattle and a 4-2 win over Portland in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Projected Lineups

RSL (4-4-2, diamond midfield): Rimando; Balchan*, Borchers, Schuler, Beltran; Beckerman, Gil, Grabavoy, Morales; Saborio, Garcia

*Chris Wingert suffered a groin injury against Toronto FC and is doubtful for Saturday

Sporting KC (4-3-3): Kronberg; Opara, Collin, Besler, Sinovic; Feilhaber, Rosell, Nagamura; Zizzo, Dwyer, Zusi

Storylines

  • Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC capped off the 2013 MLS season in the MLS Cup Final, with Sporting winning 1-1 (7-6) after ten rounds of penalty kicks in freezing weather.  Will RSL be able to exact revenge on Sporting, or can Sporting improve on their recent record against RSL by winning its fourth of the clubs’ last five matches?
  • Apparently, these two sides don’t like each other.  Dom Dwyer made that clear after SKC’s match against Colorado, and Nat Borchers responded in kind.  As one tweet put it:

Translation: “Very heated players from both teams.  For example, Borchers and Dwyer have made an exercise of publicly declaring who hates the other more…”  Will the bad blood between these two teams result in a rougher match?

  • Alvaro Saborio has been on a run of solid form lately, with three goals in his last two matches and a very active game against Toronto FC.  Can he keep it up in the absence of his strike partner, Joao Plata?
  • Will RSL-Sporting KC become one of the league’s great rivalries?  It certainly matches up two consistently great teams, but there has to be some limit to what is considered a rivalry.  As Nat Borchers said, “It seems like darn near every team we have some kind of rivalry with.”
  • A number of participants in Saturday’s match will be returning from duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team after Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Mexico.  Nick Rimando went 90 minutes while Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler all started and played for about 60 to 75 minutes.  Luis Gil also participated in the USMNT camp ahead of the match in Phoenix.  How will a hard-fought international match affect each team’s key players?

Predictions

Aurelien Collin will receive a red card.  Karma may never be able to fully compensate for Collin remaining on the field in MLS Cup 2013 to score Sporting’s equalizer.  But this would be a start.

Foul Fest 2014.  Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake have two of the highest foul rates in the league this season (SKC, at 18.25 per match, is first; RSL is third at 17 per match).  Alvaro Saborio is second in the league with 12 fouls committed, while SKC’s Benny Feilhaber is right behind him at 11.  With a made-up line of 28.5 fouls, I’ll take the over.

Javi gets a goal.  In last year’s heartbreaking final, Javi chipped Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen from about 25 yards only to see his shot hit the far post and run across the mouth of the goal without going in.  Javi deserves a little redemption for that unlucky bounce.

A rough game will even out possession.  RSL has been pretty dominant in possession so far this season, averaging 54.2% possession through four games and being outpossessed only in their opener at LA Galaxy (49.2% possession).  With plenty of fouls to go around, possession will be harder to maintain, and RSL will end up with possession under 52.0%.

Outcome: Real Salt Lake 2-2 Sporting KC

Heath Waddingham

About Heath Waddingham

SLC-raised and BYU-educated. RSLTID.

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