Real Salt Lake was eminently familiar with its first two MLS Cup Playoff opponents, having played LA three times prior to beating the Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals and facing Portland on four occasions before squaring off with the Timbers in the Western Conference Championship series.
RSL and MLS Cup 2013 opponent Sporting KC are far less acquainted, with the sides meeting just once this year, a 2-1 SKC win at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 20. It's difficult to learn much from that game, which was played without four RSL regulars who were away on international duty and with Sporting using a makeshift lineup.
With that, let's take a look at Kansas City and what makes them tick:
Sporting typically plays a 4-3-3 formation, lately playing U.S. international Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong on the wings with Dom Dwyer in the middle. The midfield suffers from a numerical disadvantage but there's plenty of talent. Oriol Rosell is one of the best young defensive midfielders in the league, Paulo Nagamura is a box-to-box workhorse, and Benny Feilhaber can be a creative force. But the defense is where KC really makes hay - Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are solid outside backs, and Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler are one of MLS' best center back pairings. In goal is the usually reliable Jimmy Nielsen.
Sporting is known for their physicality - they led MLS this year in fouls committed. Their idea is to quickly win the ball back, and if that doesn't happen, disrupt the flow of the game. It's hard to argue with the approach, as KC conceded the fewest goals in the league (30) this year. What they've accomplished is remarkable; looking over the last five years, teams that commit a lot of fouls have tended to allow quite a few goals. But not Kansas City, and their center backs are a big reason why. Both Collin and Besler are great in the air so they get their heads on a lot of set piece crosses. Simply lobbing balls into the box plays right into Sporting's hands and is a difficult way to beat them.
On the ball
When they win the ball, Kansas City wants to get it to the front as quickly as possible. They have plenty of speed up top, and all three strikers are solid on the ball, with Zusi particularly deft. That doesn't mean they're necessarily a counterattacking team like LA, but they're also not necessarily a tiki-taka midfield-dominant team like RSL. KC's midfield only contributed four goals and seven assists this season, so clearly they want to put the ball on the feet of Sapong, Dwyer, and Zusi. And if one of them doesn't have the magic, they have the luxury of bringing Designated Player Claudio Bieler off the bench. Ironically, Bieler is actually Sporting's scoring leader with 11 goals this season.
How RSL gets it done
For me, this game comes down to three things for RSL. First, can Salt Lake establish its passing game? I fear that if the match turns into a free kick contest, it won't turn out well for RSL. Getting the tempo and flow going will give Real the best chance at breaking down that stout back line. Second, can RSL play out of pressure when they recover the ball? KC loves to apply immediate pressure, especially at home, so it will be important that Salt Lake get out of tight spaces intelligently. Third, can Real avoid turning the ball over in bad spots? The way to neutralize KC's forwards is not give them the ball with time and space. Losing possession in their own end will put RSL in uncomfortable situations in the back, and they can only get away with that so many times. If Salt Lake can manage these three keys, I like their chances at taking home MLS Cup come Saturday.
We’re five days away from MLS Cup 2013 between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park.
Start Cup week off right with our favorite RSL Rewind, taking you back to RSL’s MLS Cup 2009 win over the LA Galaxy in Seattle. Five days, people. Five days.
Interesting take from MLSsoccer.com's Greg Lalas on comments that Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey made a couple of months back in Grantland about the stylistic dichotomy between RSL and Kansas City.
We're a bit partial, but we're leaning with Lagerwey on this one. You can keep your high-tempo style, Kansas City. We'll take our brilliant midfield diamond.
Click here for more on the rivalry between RSL and Sporting Kansas City. The sides will meet in MLS Cup at 2 p.m. MT on Saturday on ESPN at Sporting Park.
Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey sat down with ABC 4's Dana Greene for nearly 15 minutes yesterday, talking about MLS Cup 2013, RSL's 2013 season, the supposed "rebuild," and how the Claret-and-Cobalt stacks up against MLS Cup foe Sporting Kansas City, both on and off the field.
ABC 4 was kind enough to post the entire interview to their website last night, after airing this shorter package on Lagerwey's interview on their 6 o'clock newscast. Check out the full-length interview above.
Real Salt Lake advanced to MLS Cup 2013 on Sunday night, defeating Portland Timbers 1-0 (5-2 on aggregate).
Here are some interesting numbers from the match:
With Real Salt Lake’s win on Sunday night, the Claret-and-Cobalt has advanced to MLS Cup twice in its nine-season history. Real Salt Lake will face Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park in MLS Cup 2013 on Dec. 7. The last time RSL advanced to MLS Cup was in 2009 where the Claret-and-Cobalt defeated LA Galaxy 5-4 on penalty kicks at Qwest Field in Seattle.
Real Salt Lake handed Portland Timbers four losses in six games across all competitions this calendar year. In the 35 games against everyone else, Portland only suffered four losses.
Robbie Findley scored his sixth-career MLS Cup Playoff goal in Sunday’s match against Portland. The RSL FW has scored two goals in the postseason both against portland– one scored in the 41st minute in the Western Conference Championship first leg 4-2 win and the lone goal in RSL’s second leg 1-0 win over Portland on Sunday. With six playoff goals, Robbie Findley is Real Salt Lake’s all-time leading goal scorer in the postseason.
Real Salt Lake won the Western Conference Championship series with a total 5-2 aggregate score. In the two-legged series, RSL combine for five goals while Portland was kept to two. The series saw goals from RSL MF Sebastian Velasquez, MF Javier Morales, DF Chris Schuler and FW Robbie Findley.
RSL had a very diverse attack against Portland this year, with nine different players scoring and seven different players assisting in the Utah side’s six matches against the Timbers in 2013. RSL MF Javier Morales leads the way for RSL with three goals, followed by FW Alvaro Saborio and FW Robbie Findley with two goals each, while FW Devon Sandoval, MF Luis Gil, DF Chris Schuler, DF Nat Borchers and MF Cole Grossman all have one tally against the Cascadia club. Captain Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Joao Plata lead the way for RSL with three assists against the Timbers each; Grabavoy, Gil, Findley and Saborio all have one assist against Portland.
With Sunday’s full shifts, Real Salt Lake Captain Kyle Beckerman and GK Nick Rimando have played all 1,710 minutes in RSL’s 18-game playoff history.
Great video from ESPN on the RSL postgame celebration from Sunday's Western Conference Championship win over Portland. Check it out above for the full trophy presentation, along with interviews with Head Coach Jason Kreis, Captain Kyle Beckerman and forward Robbie Findley.
Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers square off again, and while the last match left this one teetering in RSL's favor, another 90 minutes are needed to protect the two-goal cushion leading to the MLS Cup final.
1. Don't allow Portland to build from wide positions
The Timbers thrive in wide positions cutting inside, and often, you'll find their most dangerous play emanating from channels between the flank and the center. If they're allowed time to build and either drive in a cross or play a ball across the face of the box, they'll be dangerous. Preventing the opposition from finding joy in those areas will be key, but it won't solve everything.
To accomplish this, Our midfielders will need to drop into deep positions in those channels, assisting the full backs in wide defense. If the forwards, too, drop back into defense when needed, two things happen: First, we're rendered more solid when defending without resorting to a line of six or seven players; second, we're put in a good position to exploit the inevitable pockets of space that will appear against an attacking Portland side, and to break forward apace.
2. Build through the middle
It's not that Portland possess any particular vulnerabilities through the middle, but this is how we know how to play. Abandoning that now, especially after it's given us so much joy throughout the season, would be folly. That approach also puts us in the strongest position to win set pieces, which are apparently our new favorite way to score (thank you, Chris Schuler.)
3. Utilize narrow strikers
In recent weeks, Jason Kreis has shifted his deployment of forwards somewhat: Where previously, one of the two was sent into a wide position (Robbie Findley or Joao Plata, typically) while the other was left in a more central position, Kreis is now setting out two strikers in more central positions. We saw this with Devon Sandoval and Robbie Findley against Portland in the first leg, and though it wasn't the first time we saw it, it surely brought us the most success. It seemed prior to the switch that we were attempting to shoehorn in some width to our innately narrow formation -- perhaps it is no surprise that when we returned to a more natural approach, we were successful. This also allows the strikers to combine a bit more, and when one of those isn't Alvaro Saborio, who can typically hold the ball until others join in attack, that could just be vital.
4. Don't give up silly free kicks in good positions
This goes without saying, really. Will Johnson scored from a free kick in a great position against us, and it's something we really should be aware of again. It will take a bit of confidence, but it's something of which we must be aware.
RSL at Portland. Western Conference Championship Leg 2. Sunday night. 7 p.m. MT. ESPN.
Today’s date should stand out in the minds of Real Salt Lake fans as it marks the fourth anniversary of the Claret-and-Cobalt’s momentous 2009 MLS Cup win. On November 22, 2009, Real Salt Lake defeated LA Galaxy 5-4 on penalty kicks in front of 46,011 fans at Qwest Field in Seattle to win the club’s first title.
The game ended deadlocked at 1-1 after extra time, with goals from LA Galaxy forward Mike Magee in the 41st minute and an RSL equalizer in the 64th minute from forward Robbie Findley. The match then advanced to penalty kicks. LA Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who now wears Claret-and-Cobalt, made two saves on RSL’s Kyle Beckerman and Andy Williams. LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan sent his kick high over the bar while RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando made two saves on LA’s Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle, the latter of which set up RSL’s Robbie Russell to score the game-winning penalty kick.
Sunday’s second leg match against Portland Timbers will provide Real Salt Lake with another opportunity to advance to MLS Cup. Several veterans remain from the 2009 Cup winning team, with Beckerman, Rimando, Findley, Nat Borchers, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Tony Beltran and injured defender Chris Wingert all a part of the team that lifted the trophy in 2009.
That experience and leadership will definitely come into play as the RSL family heads into one of the most intense environments in MLS on Sunday for the Western Conference Championship second leg – Portland's JELD-WEN Field.
Real Salt Lake has been here before.
The Claret-and-Cobalt has taken a two-goal lead into the second leg of a tournament semifinals series once already, in the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals against Costa Rican club Saprissa. RSL topped Saprissa 2-0 in the first leg of the CCL Semis at Rio Tinto Stadium in March 2011, then went down to Alvaro Saborio’s former club for the second leg, losing 1-2 to win 3-2 on aggregate and move on to the CCL Final against Monterrey.
That CCL second leg was played on artificial turf in the incredibly daunting atmosphere at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, affectionately known as The Monster’s Cave. Conditions will be similar for this Sunday’s Western Conference Championship finale at Portland, with RSL again taking a two-goal lead into a second leg, again heading into a very tough atmosphere – the Timbers are 14-1-5 at JELD-WEN Field this year – and again playing on turf.
Let’s hope the Claret-and-Cobalt can advance from this one, too. Kick is at 7:00 p.m. MT on ESPN.