Scouting report: A breakdown of what to expect from Saturday's MLS Cup finale (4 p.m., ESPN)
For the first time in three years, MLS Cup will not feature the Los Angeles Galaxy or Houston Dynamo.
This year we get Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City (4 p.m., ESPN) a pair of "small market" teams that have played big time soccer for the last half-decade.
Don't listen to the people who talk only about marketing, and superstars, and TV ratings. That stuff is irrelevant to the on-field product, which should be excellent.
I think the key to the game goes something like this: Will Kansas City be able to impose its high press/4-3-3 system on an experienced RSL team?
KC makes a living off of pressing high into your territory, limiting your time in possession, and winning the ball in your half of the field. They've been able to continue that style of play despite losing a number of important pieces in the offseason. It wasn't always pretty in 2013, but Peter Vermes navigated some tricky personnel issues to get his team back to the final for the first time since 2004.
For Real Salt Lake, it's about the experienced players in their 4-4-2 diamond midfield. They've been here before. They just beat Portland, in Portland, to win the Western Conference. Jason Kreis had a stellar season, taking his team to a pair of cup finals despite losing three starters in the Winter.
The biggest question mark here is the health of RSL forward Alvaro Saborio. He missed the Portland series with a pulled muscle and is trying to get back to full fitness for the final.
There are some experts who will tell you that RSL plays better with Devon Sandoval on the field, and they aren't incorrect. Sometimes Salt Lake is less "deferential" when the rookie plays up top. The midfielders spread the ball around instead of trying to force service in the final third. Bottom line, you can't go wrong with either of those guys playing alongside MLS veteran Robbie Findley.
Kansas City will probably roll out the trio of C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, and Graham Zusi. Those guys would likely lineup left to the right in the order I've listed them.
Salt Lake scored 57 goals this season, which was second best in the league. KC bagged 47, but did a lot of shuffling this year and never really settled on a first choice stike corps.
Advantage: Real Salt Lake
This is where the game will be won.
Can the Kansas City midfield trio outplay the RSL midfield diamond?
I think Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, and Sebastien Velasquez did a phenomenal job against Portland's system, which is very similar to Kansas City's.
KC's Oriol Rosell and Paulo Nagamura will have to keep Morales in check while Benny Feilhaber looks for room to distribute. The former U.S. International was excellent in the second leg against Houston.
Advantage: Real Salt Lake
These were two of the best defenses in 2013.
Sporting was statistically number one and only conceded 30 goals this season. They've got a pair of all-star center backs in Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler, but they also got critical backup minutes from guys like Lawrence Olum and Ike Opara.
If KC can come out focused, and if Collin can avoid an early yellow card, then things should look good at home.
The key for RSL is whether or not left back Chris Wingert is healthy for this game. He broke a rib and injured his lung a few weeks ago, which has doctors obviously concerned about his health. If he can't go, Lovel Palmer slots in at LB and will have to deal with Zusi on that side of the field.
Advantage: Sporting Kansas City
It's a total wash in this category.
Nick Rimando and Jimmy Nielsen are two of the best goalkeepers in MLS.
RSL Possible Starting XI: Rimando (GK), Wingert, Schuler, Borchers, Beltran, Beckerman, Morales, Grabavoy, Gil, Saborio, Findley
Sporting KC Possible Starting XI: Nielsen (GK), Sinovic, Collin, Besler, Myers, Nagamura, Rosell, Feilhaber, Sapong, Dwyer, Zusi
Who do you think will win Saturday's MLS Cup