By Ridge Mahoney
There’s a lot more to a championship game than the matchups of players, individually and collectively, but running down the teams position-by-position does highlight strengths and weaknesses.
For MLS Cup 2013 to be played Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., here’s how the contestants stack up:
GOALKEEPERS. Jimmy Nielsen(0.88) and Nick Rimando (1.04) finished first and third, respectively, in goals allowed average among goalkeepers who played at least 25 games. They are both experienced, inspirational figures who rarely allow a bad goal and are very capable of the spectacular, game-changing save.
Nielsen’s size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) enables him to plow through traffic for punches and catches, yet Rimando has proven for more than a decade that 5-foot-9 is big enough for someone with quick reflexes, sound positional instincts, and sure hands. Both goalies can charge out of the penalty area to kick clearances but if conditions are slick and frosty they will play it safe. Rimando is slightly better with his throws.
DEFENDERS.Both teams had to juggle starting centerbacks during the season; SKC lost Matt Beslerto international duty, RSL’s Chris Schulerneeded time to recover from injuries. On the outside, Chris Wingert is hopeful of playing after suffering a rib injury in the first leg against Portland that sidelined him for the rest of the series. SKC’s outside pairing of Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers has been intact most of the season; they are better on the ball than most of their MLS counterparts. When isolated against very skillful players they must control those situations.
Aurelien Collinand Besler, paired for three seasons, are quite complementary. Collin is the rugged enforcer, Besler the tough yet skillful defender. Schuler is not as experienced, though both he and Collin have scored twice in the playoffs. Schuler’s partner Nat Borchers is also among the league’s elite in performance and leadership. Wingert could be a risk and his replacement, Lovel Palmer, is capable but limited. On the right for RSL is the steady Tony Beltran, another player who spent time with the U.S. national team.
MIDFIELDERS. Kyle Beckerman is the ideal midfield fulcrum and in the playoffs has stepped up his range and intensity. He and Ned Grabavoy are capable of the incisive pass and so SKC can’t over-focus on Javier Morales and Luis Gil, who has sharpened and toughened his game since returning from the U-20 world championships. The diamond midfield demands much from its members but is about more than feeding Morales: that supporting trio scored a combined 13 goals and contributed 14 assists in the regular season.
The return of Paulo Nagamura has tightened up SKC in midfield and he could be the key component to defusing RSL’s smooth link play with his box-to-box energy. Ori Rosell is a class player but he’ll need to snug down his battle helmet in this game. The irrepressible Graham Zusiwill float and dart in search of seams and is a threat on any set play in the attacking half. On his home field he could well play a blinder. Benny Feilhaber has started three playoff games and notched two assists.
FORWARDS.Dom DwyerandC.J. Sapong went on loan during the regular season and have scored big goals for SKC in the playoffs; Teal Bunbury has yet to score, and DP Claudio Bielercame off the bench to hit a vital goal in the conference finals against New England. Soony Saad is the wild card. If head coach Peter Vermes picks the right combination, RSL will be scrambling, for a Zusi-fed, three-man front line is irresistible. Zusi could also play up top to open up a midfield slot for Feilhaber.
Robbie Findley’s speed and Alvaro Saborio’s guile are potent but SKC’s back line is smart and experienced. Saborio can also run hot and cold, so expect Morales -- who set a career high this season with eight goals -- to look for the shot as well as the killer pass. Also expect balls over the top for Findley early and perhaps often if there’s any moisture in the grass. If he’s fit enough to handle the conditions, Saborio’s prowess in the air will test SKC. (Rookie Devon Sandoval, who played so well for the injured Saborio against Portland, is now himself hurt.)
PLAYING STYLE. Skill and possession are the hallmarks of both teams and both also rely on early pressure when the ball turns over, so long periods of stagnant play are unlikely. The shape of RSL’s diamond midfield changes according to situations, it can be narrow if RSL goes through the middle, or almost flat when protecting the back line. Given the stakes and probable harsh conditions, this setting favors the higher-tempo home team assuming it can deal with the numbers discrepancies playing 4-3-3 against a 4-4-2.
BENCH. If Sandoval can't play, RSL can still bring tricky winger Joao Plata off the bench to ignite the attack. Olmes Garcia is also a possibility but hasn’t scored in months. Head coach Jason Kreishas a variety of midfield options -- Khari Stephenson, Sebastian Velasquez -- but few defensive backups in case of injury. Backup goalie Jeff Attinellahas played very well in relief of Rimando.
Ex-Quake defender Ike Opara has been solid in the middle of SKC’s back line and nicked a goal in the regular-season defeat of RSL.Lawrence Olum has played defense and midfield. Vermes has spotted their minutes shrewdly. Forward Jacob Peterson has played 19 games, including playoffs, with just one assist. Midfielder Peterson Joseph (23 appearances) won't be available. He collapsed in late October and awaiting the results on tests to determine his condition.
COACHES.Two men who know their teams and know the game. RSL's Jason Kreis has more experience and more success to date and this might be his farewell to RSL.
Paul Kennedy:Sporting Kansas City 0, Real Salt Lake 1.
RSL will use the same formula that worked in Portland, getting a first-half goal and using its possession game to keep SKC at bay from there on in.
Ridge Mahoney:Sporting Kansas City 2, Real Salt Lake 2 (RSL wins on penalties, 5-4).
A repeat of the 2009 outcome against the Galaxy with more goals. Both keepers are in sharp form but an SKC miss and Rimando save prove decisive.
Mike Woitalla:Sporting Kansas City 1, Real Salt Lake 2.
Downing Portland 5-2 on aggregate in the conference final without Alvaro Saborio proves RSL has the offense to overcome KC's D and home-field advantage.