This is what it all comes down to, two teams battling for the right to be called the best team in MLS, the regular season is a grind of toughness but the playoffs are when you have to shine your best when the spotlight is the brightest. It is funny that a lot of folks had Sporting KC picked early to be here, but very few thought after the off season roster changes that RSL would have what it took to get to this point, but no matter the thoughts in March, it is RSL and SKC playing in December (that is a whole other topic).
It would be hard to argue that these aren’t the two teams that deserve to be here, RSL spent most of the post All Star Match calendar at the top of the MLS table, only to drop to 4th in the final weeks, while Sporting was a top 3 side in the Eastern Conference almost the entire season. While you might argue that the Eastern Conference was the weaker side of the bracket, it is hard to argue against SKC as a top team in the league.
The two sides faced off once this season in a physical match that ended up being more about what was and wasn’t called by the officials than what the actual play was on the pitch, add in that the match came during Gold Cup and that RSL was missing 4 players to national team duty and you can toss that 2-1 SKC win into the trash heap.
that RSL was missing 4 players to national team duty and you can toss that 2-1 SKC win into the trash heap. What you can look at is the matches in the playoffs to get here, it was over a month ago that both RSL and SKC started their journey to MLS Cup, interesting enough both did so with losses in their opening matches. RSL dropped a 1-0 result at the StubHub Center to the defending MLS Cup champs the LA Galaxy, while SKC lost 2-1 at the New England Revolution. Both sides would rebound at home to win in convincing fashion to move on to their respective conference finals. For SKC it was a 3-1 win over New England who’s youth and inexperience showed big time when the pressure was applied, while RSL simply dominated LA from whistle to whistle and even a falsely waved off goal wasn’t enough to slow RSL from victory.
The Conference finals came just days after the semi’s wrapped up and while Sporting and Houston muddled to a 0-0 draw in their first match, RSL found a spark and defeated the Portland Timbers 4-2 in a match that wasn’t that close. Sporting fought to a 2-1 win at home in the second leg a couple of weeks later to secure their spot and the right to host MLS Cup, while RSL went to Portland and secured a 1-0 win to mark their return to MLS Cup. Having watched every playoff match that both sides have played and considering the opponents you would be hard pressed to not think that RSL is in better form right now.
It has been interesting reading all the various match up and preview posts done by the league and other media outlets that cover MLS (some much better than others) but most would agree with the following:
- Goalkeepers – Even – Both Rimando and Nielsen are among the very best in MLS, and while very different in size and style both are hard to beat on a bad day, near impossible on a good one. I give a slight edge to Nick if it goes to PK’s as his experience in shootouts is legendary and could be the difference maker.
- Defenders – Slight edge to RSL – If you had asked me about this 6 weeks ago my answer would have been a slight edge to SKC, but Chris Schuler isn’t just back, he is better than ever on both sides of the ball. A healthy Chris Wingert also adds a bit to RSL’s advantage here as he brings consistency and big match experience with him. Remember that while Seth Sinovic is having a great year, he was unable to stick with RSL after a trial in 2011 (not all his fault) but I still give an edge to RSL. Collin is a wildcard who committed 54 fouls and picked up 13 yellow cards this season, and with the pressure of either Alvaro Saborio or Devon Sandoval neither of whom played in the regular season match with SKC, he could be in trouble early.
OK to prevent a really long blog post here is part one of my match preview. Part II will be posted shortly.