Just past the midway point of the MLS season, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC find themselves facing off on Saturday, each represents the top team in their conference and probably the two best teams in the league right now. There are some similarities between the two sides they both have a lot of talented players, both play an aggressive style of soccer, both look to force their opponents to play their style. Of course there are some huge differences as well, RSL plays a passing game that controls long stretches of the match, SKC is a bit more frantic on the pitch with high pressure on the ball, RSL will defend with every player on the pitch, while SKC rely a lot more on their defenders and that high pressure. The one clear thing is, that both sides are very good at what they do.
Sporting KC is one of the reasons why I hate the unbalanced schedule, there are some players on their team that I love to watch play the game, Graham Zusi has quickly become one of the most exciting players in MLS. Kei Kamara is just fun to watch, and has a sparkling personality on and off the pitch, while he may have heart shaped hands it is clear that he has a huge heart to match them. Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong both can provide exiting moments at any time during a match. Aurelien Collin is one of the most fierce defenders in MLS, and while I may not always be a fan of the physical way he plays, you can’t deny the results. Only getting to see these guys and the rest of SKC only once every two years seems like a real disservice to MLS fans in the Western Conference.
For Real Salt Lake this match may be one of the toughest tests of the year, a top opponent in good form (SKC is 3-0-1 in their last 4 matches), a roster that is stretched thin by call ups and injuries. With a overall 11 match unbeaten streak on the line RSL is going to have to rely on names like Aaron Maund, Jeff Attinella, and Yordany Alvarez, the upside is that all season long the unfamiliar names have stepped up and not only delivered but most often over delivered. For RSL to keep their streak alive that will have to happen again on Saturday.
Javier Morales – Hot off his Goal of the Week goal (which really shouldn’t have won) will come a very tough test for Javi, where his skills on both sides of the ball will be tested by a strong and physical team(RSL has committed 235 fouls this season, SKC has 293). We all know how good Javi can be on the offensive side of the ball his 5 goals and 8 assists have been a real difference maker for RSL, 3 of those goals have been game winners for RSL. Javi has never had a lot of success against Sporting KC, just a single assist in his 6 matches against them, but I think the biggest thing on Saturday will be how he responds to the pressure of SKC, and if he can quickly move the ball into dangerous positions.
Jeff Attinella - A lot of people are still scratching their heads and wondering just who Jeff Attinella is, but they should relax a bit with the knowledge that Jeff is a player that RSL has had their eye on since he graduated college, and actually drafted in the supplemental draft a few years ago. While Jeff didn’t unseat Kyle Reynish then, he did go to the NASL and play for Tampa Bay for two years and quickly established himself as the best keeper in that league, which is why RSL signed him in the offseason as their intended #2 keeper. Of course when Josh Saunders, another keeper RSL knew well, became available the team jumped at the chance to sign him. While that move may have keep Jeff out of a couple of matches earlier this year, it allowed him to train with Josh and Nick Rimando, not bad to work day in and day out with guys who have lifted 3 of the last MLS Cups. Jeff is a good sized keeper at 6’2″ and showed in Dallas that he is very quick on his feet and has great vision and anticipation, I expect he will do well with this opportunity to get some first team minutes.
Joao Plata – It doesn’t matter if he starts the match or comes off the bench, Joao brings a unique energy to the pitch, he just doesn’t seem to have an off switch. While he might often get lost in the land of tall defenders, he shows no fear when going up against guys that often range from 6-12 inches taller than he is. We have seen him make great runs to keep the ball in play and while he hasn’t found the back of the net as much as he might like (just one goal in MLS action) he has created a lot of opportunities for others and is second on the team with four assists. He is a player that opposing teams often overlook, as they pay more attention to guys like Javi, Robbie, and Ned but if they don’t keep an eye on Plata he could just make them pay for the mistake.
Kei Kamara – Kei is one of my favorite players in MLS, for his abilities and drive on the pitch and for his personality and love of life off the pitch. It was a couple years ago that in the middle of the off season Kei instigated a snowball fight with fans via twitter, the event went viral and was just an example of a player who clearly is enjoying life to its fullest. He plays with that same type of enjoyment on the pitch, where he often has a smile on his face as he makes dangerous runs into the opponents third of the pitch, or even when he is darting back to help out the defense. He is just fun to watch, and one of those players that I wonder what he would be like in a RSL kit? I hate to cheer against him, but am thankful that it usually only happens once a year. Keep your eyes on number 23, he is one exciting player to watch.
Jimmy Nielsen - The first couple years in the league I was annoyed by all the attention Nielsen got, don’t get me wrong he is a great keeper his goals against average last year was 0.79 and he has a huge part in the resurgence of SKC into a title contender, it just seemed that the praise came too quickly and too easily for the tall blond, but in the end he has proven worthy of it. He has turned into one of the most consistent keepers in MLS, last year he played every minute for them. RSL has been one of the teams that has had a bit of success against him, while his GAA in 0.95 this year, against RSL in 5 matches he has a 1.20 GAA and while that number isn’t dramatic, it does mean we know how to get the ball past him, but it is never easy.
Chance Myers - I remember when he was drafted and the expectations for him were huge, then for a couple seasons we saw and heard little from him, but over the last two seasons Myers has quickly started to establish himself as one of the better two way outside backs in MLS. He is one of the SKC defenders who has enough speed to really be dangerous on both sides of the ball, and he seems to love making those attacking runs up the sides of the pitch. So far this year he has found the back of the net twice and added an assist, and I expect the battle between him and Chris Wingert to be one of the more exciting ones of the match. He is another player you have to keep your eye on with SKC, especially when he makes those attacking runs.
Unbridled aggression vs. Deliberate patience – Earlier I called the Sporting KC style frantic, and it is they play every minute with a level of aggressive play that is rarely seen in MLS or anywhere, they get away with it by having some incredible athletes who can play at that level for the entire match. There are few teams that I think can match RSL at pure fitness, but SKC is probably the closest to that level and they lean on that fitness to drive the style that they play. For RSL it is the opposite, they style they want to play is the controlling of the match by controlling the possession and dictating the pace of the match, while RSL plays with a high energy level, they are much more deliberate in how they do things. Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating to watch as you want them to attack, but it is about creating and exploiting spaces and doing their best to not allow their opponents to find room or opportunity to attack. When these two teams meet there is the potential for the match to go either way, wide open with a lot of attacking runs, or a more strategic approach with sides waiting for their opponents to make a mistake and then punishing it. One thing you can expect to see, some tough physical challenges, it won’t be if they happen, it will be when and will they lead to dangerous set piece chances?
Matthew Foerster – Once again a big match for RSL will be officiated by a relative newcomer of an official, Foerster has just 15 previous MLS matches under his belt, he calls an average of 23.3 fouls per match, issues an average of 3.7 yellow cards, and while he has only issued one red card, he has pointed to the PK spot 5 times. It is a shame when you have the two best teams in the league playing, that you don’t assign one of the best officials to the match but continue to use inexperienced officials that rarely know how to control a match and far too often seem to overreact with game changing calls.
Real Salt Lake has just 11 goals scored in the first half of matches, they have 13 of their 21 second half goals have been scored in the final 15 minutes of matches this year. Sporting KC has a more balanced attack with 13 first half goals and 16 second half goals. Most matches in MLS are won by the team that score the first goal, RSL is 10-1-2 when they score first, while Sporting KC is 8-2-3 when they score first. Each side has only come from behind once this year to claim a win, RSL is 1-4-2 when giving up the first goal, SKC is 1-3-1. These two sides are so evenly matches that is is almost frightful, RSL has a +14 goal differential, SKC a +10, RSL has a league best 5 road wins this season and an impressive 6-1-3 home record, but SKC has an impressive 4-2-3 record on the road.
As good as SKC is, they are just 1-3-2 this year when facing Western Conference opponents and RSL will look to hand them another loss on Saturday. I think you will see SKC come out very aggressive and look for an early goal to test the makeshift RSL backline and untested keeper, but that aggressiveness could provide RSL with some early chances as the speed of our forwards could really cause problems for the SKC defense that is tough and physical but not the speediest in the league. This is a match where the elements could play a huge factor, it is going to be hot today in Salt Lake, but SKC is used to heat and humidity but will the elevation and thinner air in Salt Lake have an impact later in the match? It could and RSL have shown that they are able to score goals in bunches late in matches, with 13 of their 32 goals coming after the 75th minute. I have to pick a 2-1 RSL win, but for that result to happen we are going to once again need to see exceptional performances from guys who are being thrust into the spotlight of this match, something that we have seen often this year.
That’s How I See It