By Paul Gardner
Scanning the Kansas City and the Real Salt Lake rosters for a likely MVP in today's final, two names -- representing two very different aspects of soccer -- stand out: Aurelien Collin for KC, and Javier Morales for RSL.
Collin the defensive battler. Morales the creative schemer. Suggesting that if KC win, it will be through aggressive physical effort, while an RSL victory will come from skill and subtlety. I think that is close to the truth, and it is something that should be causing some concern in the RSL camp.
First, because Morales is the league’s most-fouled player. Official MLS stats have him, with 78 fouls suffered, at No. 2 behind Darlington Nagbe, with 83 fouls. But the more meaningful stat is fouls suffered per game -- which is 2.79 for Morales and 2.44 for Nagbe.
And second, because Kansas City leads the league in fouls committed. By quite a wide margin -- its total of 511 fouls is 46 more than second place Chivas USA. KC averaged 15 fouls per game during the MLS regular season. As for individual players, the two chief offenders for KC are Aurelien Collin and Oriol Rosell, who sit in the top two MLS positions for yellow cards received -- Collin with 13, Rosell with 10. And Rosell’s name pops up again in fourth position in the Fouls Committed category, with 66 fouls in 31 games.
The stats, then, paint a picture of KC as the league’s most physical team -- and that indicates a painful afternoon for Morales. But it may not be that way. There are other stats that suggest something a bit different about KC. They conceded only one penalty kick, and had only one player red-carded. The figures for Real were six PKs and six ejections.
The case can be made for KC that their fouling activities are the inevitable result of a high pressure game, almost incidental, and not part of a deliberately intimidatory approach.
Maybe. But it is not a case that I would choose to make. What I would say is that for a team to lead the league in fouls, but to have so few red cards and penalty kicks called against them, suggests that we are not talking about violent fouls, but rather tactical fouls. Robust ones, no doubt, but not dangerous ones. We are also talking about considerable discipline here -- all those fouls, plus the yellows -- but only one red?
What I have seen of KC this season bears that out. With one exception. Aurelien Collin -- who is physical to the point of recklessness and seems to lead a charmed life, always right on the edge of red-card territory.
Real’s VP and general manager Garth Lagerwey had something to say recently about the way KC plays, comparing it -- unfavorably -- with Real’s approach: “I think the league has to decide, do they want that kind of physical, rock’em-sock’em style, or do they want to play more of a passing, possession, beautiful game.”
It is KC’s playing style -- though “style” is too complimentary a word for something that involves so much fouling -- I’ll call it a method -- that raises the question of how Morales fares. It is inconceivable, that KC -- well aware of Morales’s key role for Real --will not try, with their high-pressure tactics, to crowd him out of the game. It will not be the roughest of the KC players, Collin, who marks Morales. That duty will fall, I would think, to either Rosell or Paulo Nagamura. Or both.
This might well be a worry for Morales. His previous experience of MLS Cup Final play was four years ago, against the Galaxy. Morales was fouled by David Beckham -- a truly nasty, sneaky foul -- and had to leave the game after only 22 minutes.
RSL coach Jason Kreis seems fatalistic about Morales getting fouled: "We go into the game knowing it’s going to happen. We are ready to deal with that and move on. I would be wasting my breath if I asked for the referees to protect Javier. We’ve done that far too often and we never get the right result."
And so to referee Hilario Grajeda, someone else who will have to keep a wary eye on Morales and what happens to him. Grajeda strikes me as a middle-of-the-road referee, not overly strict or lenient. Whether that will be enough, in a cauldron of a stadium packed with fervid home-town fans, to keep KC’s “rock’em-sock’em” method from brimming over into something more menacing, I’m not at all sure.
It is not that KC cannot play decent soccer. It has, after all, Benny Feilhaber, and it has Graham Zusi -- but under coach Peter Vermes they operate within a team that concentrates more on hustling their opponents than on creating their own game. It is a method that I find disagreeable, not much fun to watch. KC have made it work, it’s got them to the final, so they will not be about to change anything.
But Real, confronted by the KC method in full cry in its own stadium, might well consider adopting a more physical approach -- on survival grounds. I hope not --that way lurk problems for RSL.
Sticking to its own style -- and this is a real soccer style, with Morales as the creative hub -- will work best for RSL.
Here’s Lagerwey again: “That’s really why the rivalry comes into focus, because you see these two different directions the league could go." The RSL style vs. the KC method. Good luck, Hilario Grajeda.