As final press conferences go, this was hardly Ali vs Liston. There's something very earnest about the build up to this MLS Cup final, as if the battle on the field between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake starts with a competition to see which team can "respect" the other one more fiercely. Certainly neither set of coaches or players seemed willing to risk giving their opponents bulletin board material as they faced the media before Saturday's game.

Both sides had the head coaches and key players at an early evening press conference in downtown Kansas City on Thursday, while earlier in the day Sporting KC's Peter Vermes and his players held court in the confined quarters of their training ground offices. As the day unfolded, coaches and players were pressed about the possibility of a physical confrontation, given some testy recent onfield history between the teams, and both instead repeatedly referenced mutual respect for each other.

If there was a deviation from the median tone of grim-faced backslapping, it was perhaps inevitable that it came from Benny Feilhaber, who's really begun to find his feet in these playoffs as a creative foil for this Kansas City side, without losing that particular edginess that seems to mark him out, for better or worse, in most sides he's played in.

Asked to describe his likely battle with Kyle Beckerman, Feilhaber did offer that the RSL captain could be "a little bit of a prick on the field" but he seemed to be speaking more in admiration than condemnation about his adversary, in what could be one of the key battles on Saturday afternoon. And sure enough, he was soon back to the line about having "a lot of respect" for the Salt Lake player.

As Feilhaber went on to describe it, the key to the game could be Sporting's ability to move the ball out wide quickly and switch play to get behind Beckerman and at the Salt Lake defense. Beckerman and the narrow RSL midfield will of course be a different proposition than the Houston midfield, in particular a stretched Warren Creavalle, that Feilhaber tormented in the Conference final second leg, in the absence of Ricardo Clark.

"Rico covers a ton of ground, so without him in there I knew I'd have an opportunity to run at the defense and maybe create some opportunities. In fact I maybe even did that too much, but I wanted to make a point. There were a couple of times in the first half, even the first goal, I tried to go and didn't get the ball off the way I wanted to and we got a decent bounce and we got a goal...Definitely if I get a ball in the middle of the field (against RSL) and get a chance to go at them I'm going to take that chance, because it's not often you get that opportunity, with Kyle Beckerman sitting in in front of that defense."

RSL's midfield will certainly be a different proposition than a weakened Houston's, and maybe the "bounces" won't be such a factor. When Vermes was questioned about the role that the cold might play in the final, during a week where temperatures have dipped as low as 7ºF in Kansas City, he was largely dismissive of the potential effect, but did concede that through "miscommunication" the field had been watered before the Houston game, and had subsequently frosted over when temperatures fell after kick off, affecting both teams' passing in a scrappy game.

The field at Sporting Park has a sub air heating system, so provided there no further "miscommunications" the ground should be softer and better on Saturday. If anything a greater disruption to both team's play may be as likely to come not from the weather, or the field, as what both coaches called the "loss of rhythm" from only playing two games in the last four weeks. Kreis noted, "I don't think it's ideal for soccer... When you go two weeks and you have to train that long, the guys are ready to kill each other by the time you get to games, and I think you just lack that match fitness and sharpness," though he did concede that the two weeks had allowed Alvaro Saborio and Chris Wingert to train their way back from injury, into contention for the 18 on Saturday.

Saborio could be crucial, as his replacement Devon Sandoval has picked up an injury in the last couple of days training and is described as "touch and go" by Kreis. Wingert limped out of the Conference final against Portland after a fierce clash with Diego Valeri, and he was lucky not to be thrown out of the one regular season meeting with Sporting in Utah after another crunching foul with just six seconds on the clock, that set the tone for a fractious game, with 26 fouls.

That game was won deep in injury time by Sporting, with Wingert's eventual red card changing the momentum of the match. Whether Saturday's game turns out to be the "physical game" Beckerman expects, both teams' potent if differently styled countering instincts may mean that we go through similar momentum changes in the final.

Certainly both teams have had to dig deep to get here. Both trailed after the road legs of their Conference semi-finals, and came back to win at home. In the Conference finals Sporting went down an early goal against Houston — a goal marked by Oscar Boniek Garcia cutting back to shoot, as Seth Sinovic skidded helplessly past him on the freezing wet surface. Yet they came back to win with a controlled and composed display. When I put it to Peter Vermes that this year's Sporting side look weaker on paper than previous sides, but are perhaps possessed of a stronger "institutional memory" after keeping the core of the team together, he agrees:

"We're still a very young team, if you look at that — it may have changed a little because (Federico) Bessone here — but before him it was something like 24 years old. So when you look at that it's a young team in age, but the last three years we've got a lot of experience in terms of the competitions that we've played in. We've won a US Open Cup; we're two times now in the Eastern Conference Championship; we've won the East in the regular season — so there's a lot of things that these guys have done consistently — and going through Champions League this year, giving up one goal, not losing one of our games in qualifying for the knockout stage...all of that stuff, all of that experience has been paramount to us getting to this point."

Kreis meanwhile talked of his team far exceeding his pre-season expectations for "a maybe 0.500 season..." given all the new players and of senior members of the side, including Nick Rimando, recently telling him that their own expectations for the year had exceeded the stated targets of the coach. Kreis repeatedly mentioned the leadership qualities of Beckerman and Rimando in his press conference, emphasizing their role in welcoming and settling the new personnel at Rio Tinto Stadium this year. Those qualities could be tested further in the pre-season for 2014, if the coach does as expected leave for New York City FC.

Kreis has repeatedly insisted a decision has not been made, and his club owner Dell Loy Hansen is still publicly holding out hope that a revised, lucrative offer can keep the coach, but there was a valedictory feel to Kreis's comments at the Thursday evening press conference, when he acknowledged that ever since the final game of the season against Chivas, he's had to deal with the sensation of knowing that each game "might be the last match that I get to coach with this group," even as he insisted that "the decision has yet to be made."

Yet before that issue is addressed, there's another question to be resolved, starting from around 3.22pm CT on Saturday afternoon — who will be the MLS Cup 2013 winners, and who will be the losers taking scant consolation from earning their victorious opponents' respect?

Live minute-by-minute coverage of MLS Cup: Sporting KC vs Real Salt Lake on Guardian US Sports from 3pmET on Saturday