Real Salt Lake (2-0-3, nine points) at Philadelphia Union (1-1-3, six points)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.
TV: 6abc featuring play-by-play announcer JP Dellacamera and color analyst Peter Pappas
Much like death and taxes, the idea of Real Salt Lake being a contender for the MLS Cup is one of life's few certainties.
The reigning Western Conference champions are unbeaten in 2014, and they travel to Philadelphia this Saturday on the heels of back-to-back shutouts against Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City.
The latter was a rematch of last year's MLS Cup, with Salt Lake holding the champions to a scoreless draw on their home turf. RSL did it without starting goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and without both starting fullbacks.
They've navigated a brutal early schedule and they look like they haven't missed a beat, even with the departure of long time head coach Jason Kreis and the promotion of his former assistant, Jeff Cassar.
Meet Maurice Edu and Andrew Wenger this Sunday. Click graphic for more information!
"I think they’re very good, they’re one of the two undefeated teams in the league," Union manager John Hackworth told media members at his midweek press conference. "They returned almost everybody from their team last year, so they’re an experienced team with a lot of quality. They know how to manage games, and they know how to go on the road and get results. Obviously, they played in the championship last year. I think they’re going to be a team over the long haul that is one of the best teams in our league."
RSL is one of the three teams that the Union has yet to defeat since joining MLS, the other two being FC Dallas and Portland.
But the results haven't been entirely lopsided.
It took a stoppage time penalty kick for Salt Lake to salvage a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium last year, and the 2012 matchup played out to a scoreless draw.
In three games at PPL Park, the Union and RSL have battled to three draws that have featured just four total goals. Those results weren't ideal for Philadelphia, but they were ideal for RSL, and they have earned a road point every single time they've made the cross-country trip to Chester.
It was the formula used in Kansas City last week, as Cassar's team nicked a road point with several starters missing and others returning from international duty.
"I think they play good soccer," Hackworth said. "They’re possession oriented, and they’re composed when they put it in your end. They don’t seem to get flustered very easily; that’s a sign of their experience and maturity. So, it’s going to be a tough game for us."
RSL has been running its trademark 4-4-2 diamond for the better part of six years now.
It's the skill of players like Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales that make the formation click. Veterans like Nat Borchers, Alvaro Saborio, and Ned Grabavoy have been critical and complementary pieces.
The club has also groomed young players like Luis Gil and identified good foreign talent in acquisitions like Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata, simply reloading to address departures such as Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, and Yura Movsisyan.
The success comes from the system and the continuity at the club. That core group of players – Beckerman, Morales, Saborio, Borchers, Rimando, and Tony Beltran, has been playing together for about a half-decade.
"I think once you establish a culture and a way of playing as a group, and you have the kind of players that they have — they have national team players in Rimando and Beckerman, and that’s just two of the guys that really make them work — but they’ve been doing that with Salt Lake for a long time," Hackworth explained. "And then you have (Jeff Cassar) who, it’s his first time head coaching but he was an assistant there for a long time. I don’t think they’re skipping a beat in that regard. They have a lot of continuity. They have built this up over many, many years, and I still think you’re seeing that with this team this year."
What do you think about this Salt Lake team? Leave a comment below.
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org