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.