[MLS CUP COUNTDOWN] Real Salt Lake should get back its two starters, Alvaro Saborio and Chris Wingert, who missed the second leg of the Western Conference final for Saturday's MLS Cup final against Sporting Kansas City (TV: ESPN, UniMas, 4 p.m. ET). Less clear is the future of RSL coach Jason Kreis, whose contract is about to expire and who is rumored to be headed to expansion team New York City FC.
INJURY UPDATE.Of the three RSL players dinged up during the playoffs, the two starters are confirmed as good to go.
Striker Alvaro Saborio (pulled muscle) and left back Chris Wingert (bruised rib) have trained consistently during the two-week break between the conference finals and MLS Cup and though the recovery time may have dulled their sharpness, both are expected to start Saturday against Sporting Kansas City.
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Saborio suffered his injury in the semifinals against the Galaxy and sat out the two-game series against Portland that RSL won, 5-2, on aggregate. Wingert was injured in the first Timbers game and Lovel Palmerstepped in.
RSL may not have one of its catalysts off the bench, however. Rookie forward Devon Sandovalsuffered a broken foot after scoring in the first leg against Portland, a 4-2 victory, yet started the second game. He aggravated the injury in training before the team flew to Kansas City and did not train Thursday prior to departure.
PLAYERS COMMENT ON KREIS.RSL coach Jason Kreis has repeated his stance regarding a purported offer from New York City FC, an expansion team set to start play in 2015: there is no decision and won’t be until several days after MLS Cup. RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen upped the ante this week by saying a “substantial offer” to retain Kreis, whose contract is about to expire, was tendered weeks ago.
His players, including many veterans of the 2009 championship team, were blunt in their praise.
“He’s the father of this team,” said midfielder Javier Morales told MLSsoccer.com. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, but if he leaves next year, [winning] would be the best thing we could do for him.”
Wingert, another holdover from 2009, said, “We all love Jason. We don’t want him to leave. I think everybody’s on the same page. We love Jason and the rest of his staff and we don’t really want that to change. If it does, it does, and we’ll be happy for him doing what’s best for his family.”
BOX-TO-BOX BATTLE.RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman is acknowledged as one of the league’s best holding players who can also deliver incisive passes and occasionally get forward. There is no direct counterpart in Sporting Kansas City’s midfield, since its 4-3-3 formation doesn’t jibe with the 4-4-2 diamond used by RSL, but SKC’s game in the middle has been strengthened by the play of veteran Paulo Nagamura.
After sitting out six games at the end of the season with a tweaked ankle, he returned for the second leg of the conference semifinals against New England. SKC has outscored the opponents 5-2 since he came back.
“He's been a monster for us,” Graham ZusitoldMLSSoccer.com. “Just his energy level has seemed to boost us so much in these playoffs. Honestly, I think without his role I struggle to see us doing as well as we have.”
RSL tends to play a narrow diamond, but by merely spreading out wider could drag Nagamura too far from his midfield mates and carve open large gaps. Nagamura will obviously be tasked with subduing Morales, the RSL playmaker, and he will also need to cover a lot of ground front to back while not drifting too far out of the middle without cover.
Nagamura, 30, came to MLS in 2005 after several years of grooming in the Arsenal youth team. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, helped the Galaxy win an MLS Cup that year, and in 2007 bounced to Toronto and Chivas USA before playing a season in Mexico with Tigres. Then it was back to Chivas USA, which traded him to SKC after the 2011 season.
With all that experience plus a powerful engine, Nagamura’s performance on both sides of the ball will be critical. As Beckerman does for RSL, Nagamura must close down space and win balls while also pushing balls into effective spots. He may not square off very often with Beckerman but he will be just as important.