I’m not cold. Not me. I’m rock, me.
You may have heard that it’s cold in Kansas City this week. It is. So if the occasional word in this article reads as “ghjkmtrrt" when it’s meant to be “Zusi”, blame the stupidly thick gloves your correspondent is wearing to brave MLS Cup week.
On Saturday, Sporting Kansas City will be taking on Real Salt Lake in what’s likely to be the coldest MLS Cup final ever.
Not that Sporting coach Peter Vermes is bothered. Speaking to a handful of journalists at Sporting’s training field yesterday (including one pale, bearded specimen huddled into the corner of his office nearest the baseboard heater), Vermes recalled playing in a game in freezing rain at the Rutgers Bowl, before airily gesturing at the tundra beyond his window and saying, “this is nothing.” I expect him to wear one of those t-shirts with a shirt and tie printed on it for the final. If he does I’ll be happy to borrow his sweater.
Other than the cold, which I may or may not be slightly exaggerating for vaguely comic effect (and which won’t be as much of a problem as for the Houston Dynamo game here — where the grounds staff accidentally watered the field according to Vermes, in a tone that suggested it won’t happen again), we’re in for a fascinating final on Saturday. Two evenly matched teams, both of whom will feel that they haven’t got the number of trophies from the last few years that their overall consistency has deserved. Two intense coaches yelling them on and indeed, two Guardian journalists hanging around the sandwich table wondering loudly if there’s going to be soup.
Yes, Paolo Bandini and myself will be reporting from the game, while esteemed editor Steve Busfield runs the live minute-by-minute coverage during the game itself. You can see Paolo’s interview with Jimmy Nielsen here and my profile of RSL coach Jason Kreis here. And if that’s not enough preview for you, our regular contributors for each team are on hand RIGHT NOW to preview the final with their always evenhanded perspective, where thoughts of victory are secondary to their collective touching concern that Jimmy Nielsen is warm enough.
See what they have to say below, add your own predictions in our comments and join us for the game with Steve tomorrow. And stay cozy.
Sporting Kansas City vs Real Salt Lake
Saturday 4pm ET, Sporting Park ( ESPN, UniMas, TSN2, RDS)
Mike Kuhn, Editor, Down the Byline, Sporting Kansas City:
Sporting KC is finally back to an MLS Cup final, after finally getting over their bogey team in Houston, Sporting face off against Real Salt Lake Saturday at Sporting Park. Over the past few years, the two teams have developed a bit of a dislike for each other stemming from a preseason game that was called early after a tackle by former KC midfielder Roger Espinoza led to a scuffle between the two teams.
Since then, the games between the two teams have been more physical affairs as Salt Lake becomes more physical, and KC plays their style which is physical to begin with. Salt Lake likes to tout their style of play, but in games against Sporting they've brought the physical play just as much as KC has. One only has to look at the team's regular season meeting where Chris Wingert could have been sent off in the first 6 seconds.
MLS Cup is going to be a physical affair, that doesn't mean I don't think it'll be entertaining, but it's not going to be a free flowing game. The big question will be in the midfield where KC's three man midfield will go against Salt Lake's diamond. Getting Benny Feilhaber involved is key for KC, the former US national team player has really stepped up his play in the playoffs and will need to control things in the middle offensively for KC to lift the cup. I think at home, KC will have just enough to sneak by RSL, with Dom Dwyer again getting the winner 2-1.
Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:
In its third season since rebranding in 2011, Sporting Kansas City finds itself in the MLS Cup final at its state-of-the-art stadium, Sporting Park. Before a sold-out crowd and freezing weather, SKC looks to defeat Real Salt Lake and bring the Cup back to the city 13 seasons after its 2000 championship.
The match will no doubt be exciting. Both teams are possession teams, yet each uses possession differently. Based on an MLS analysis of season statistics, we know that SKC holds the ball for fewer passes before taking a shot at goal when compared to RSL. We also know that SKC has scored less goals, yet RSL has conceded more goals.
My concern for the match is how the back line will behave. If Matt Besler is forced to fill in for Aurelien Collin as he has had to do on many occasions, RSL will be able to break through. This makes the midfield more important than ever. With Paulo Nagamura back from injury and focused, SKC regains much needed strength. Nagamura is an experienced playmaker who instills confidence in the defensive players.
Also in form is Benny Feilhaber. He will be key to setting the tempo and leading the push forward. After his last performance against Houston, no other version of Feilhaber will do.
I look forward to a Sporting Kansas City 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.
Denzel Eslinger, RSL Soapbox, Real Salt Lake:
It has been funny to hear people try to figure out what the conflict between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City should be called, is it a rivalry or just two teams that don't like each other? I am not going to try to guess what the answer is but I know this much, ever since an abandoned preseason match a couple years ago when the two teams meet it has been physical and intense. Saturday will be the same way as the MLS Cup is on the line, for Sporting KC they want to prove to their fans that despite losing some big name players that they are the top team in the league, for RSL making the playoffs six straight years isn't enough to cement their legacy they must win hardware to do so.
Extra fuel was added this year with the issues surrounding #TicketGate which left some fans on both sides with tickets invalidated and scrambling to find valid tickets, RSL has also had to deal with some ill timed rumors about the contract status of head coach Jason Kreis, who is being woo'ed by NYCFC. Both sides will be faced with some tough decisions on what lineups to put on the pitch, for RSL it is Alvaro Saborio and Chris Wingert recovering from injuries, for SKC it is what players in what places will give them the best shot at winning. The two sides faced off in July in a match filled with questionable officiating and ended with a 7th minute stoppage time goal that gave KC the 2-1 win, but RSL was missing several players on national team call ups.
While most of the focus will be on the midfields, I think the battles between the forwards and centerbacks on both sides of the pitch will be the most telling, Schuler and Borchers have proven in the playoffs that they can be as dominating as any center back duo in MLS, while Besler and Collin have anchored the best defense in MLS this year and it seems like maybe a slight edge to SKC in that category, but how they matchup against the opposing forwards is a different story. SKC goes with a 4-3-3 formation but since the departure of Kei Kamara and falling out of favor of Claudio Bieler (no starts and just 2 appearances in 4 playoff matches), while on the other side RSL has seen Robbie Findley come to life in the playoffs with 2 goals (including the winner at Portland in the 2nd leg), alongside him recently has been rookie Devon Sandoval who has opened the eyes of a lot of people by his post season performances and workrate, now add in a healthy Saborio and the RSL offense will likely force both Besler and Collin to step up huge on the biggest stage of the season.
I think RSL goes into the match with no pressure, they have overreached from what most people thought they would do this year, but SKC have the pressure of finally making it to MLS Cup and hosting the event. A lot of people are picking this to be a match to go to extra time and likely not see many goals, but I disagree I think it is a 2-1 RSL win in regulation off an early goal from Robbie Findley, an equalizer by Zusi and the game winner from Alvaro Saborio.
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
It's been a while since we've been in this position: The season rests in delicate balance upon the outcome of this single match. Unlike that day in 2009 in which we were catapulted from oft-forgot MLS expansion team to MLS Cup victors, this time, we're somewhat expected to fare well. Which isn't to say we're pegged to win by a boatload, but that we're not the underdog by some distance.
It's a vastly different side, then. But at the same time, we're very much the same: Our core remains relatively unchanged. Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Javier Morales and Robbie Findley all played that famous day, and they're all almost certain to start in this one. The pieces around them have changed, but four years of experience have rendered this side a constant contender.
There's certainly plenty to be wary of: Getting caught up in much ado about refereeing, for one, could make things difficult for us. Letting Sporting Kansas City tackle their way into our heads (with any luck, not literally) would be even worse. Responding with greater force and attempting to escalate the battle could be dangerous, too. Instead, we should be focusing on exactly what brought us to this point.
Attacking play, spread along the ground and done in wave after wave, is our style. Abandoning it now would be folly. Sporting KC may swing in their fair share of crosses, but we shouldn't let that dictate terms. Key to that will be preventing early goals - and the rise of Chris Schuler to domination could be the great equalizer.
A prediction, to end things: 3-0, Real Salt Lake. Through the entirety of the season, I've forgone real predictions for this static one. It's only happened once this season, so I may as well give the universe one last chance to prove me right for a second time. Besides, who doesn't love it when the attacking away side finds success?