MLS Features: MLS Cup breakdown

The Sports NetworkDecember 4, 2013 

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - So often in American sports the best two teams usually don't meet in the championship contest.

Generally, that's because a team gets hot at the end of the season, sneaks into the playoffs and rumbles to a title (see: 2007 New York Giants, 2012 Los Angeles Kings.)

Thankfully, that isn't the case with this season's MLS finale as Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake were the two best teams all season long, and we have a spectacular final on our hands with intriguing matchups all over the pitch.

Sporting Kansas City will be hoping to earn its second championship in club history and first since 2000, while Real Salt Lake will be gunning for its first title since a 5-4 penalty kick shootout win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2009.

SKC, then known as the Kansas City Wizards, beat the Chicago Fire, 1-0, in the 2000 MLS Cup at RFK Stadium, while RSL's winning goal came from Robbie Russell, with goalkeeper Nick Rimando coming up with two huge saves.

So which side will hoist the Philip F. Anschutz trophy? Here's TSN's positional breakdown of Saturday's match.

FORWARDS:

Both clubs boast an impressive stable of striking options. Real Salt Lake tallied a league-high 57 goals this season, while Sporting Kansas City fired home 47.

Sporting employs the attack-minded 4-3-3 formation with C.J. Sapong, Dominic Dwyer and Jacob Peterson leading the line, with designated player Claudio Bieler, Teal Bunbury and Soony Saad likely to come off the bench.

None of the starting trio exactly strikes fear into the hearts of the opponents. The key to victory this season has been balance among the squad members.

Bieler got off to a hot start, scoring six goals in his first 10 league matches before an injury forced him to the sidelines. In his stead, Dwyer stepped up to the mark.

The England native struggled with his finishing throughout his regular season, but made it count in the playoffs.

Where SKC excels in balance, RSL gets it done with sheer quality on the ball. Costa Rica native Alvaro Saborio is the best forward on the pitch for either club.

He's had trouble with injuries this season, but is deadly when healthy as he bagged 12 goals in just 16 matches played this season.

Rookie Devon Sandoval has emerged as a reliable threat off the bench along with Olmes Garcia, while Joao Plata has thrived since leaving Toronto FC to come to Utah.

It's a close call, but if Saborio is fully fit, which he is after suffering an injury in the first-leg win over Portland a month ago, RSL has the upper hand.

EDGE: REAL SALT LAKE

MIDFIELD: The midfield is the crux of the attack for any club, and again with these two sides, it's a case of differing formational choices both leading to success.

Sporting plays three in midfield, while RSL uses a diamond setup with a creative playmaker at the point, two out wide and the defensive player sitting in front of the back four.

For RSL, the diamond midfield has become a bit of a trademark with Argentine playmaker Javier Morales pulling the strings at the point of the attack, Yordany Alvarez and Sebastian Velasquez out wide and United States international Kyle Beckerman in front of the back four. It's a formation that can boss the center of the park.

Sporting is likely to start U.S. internationals Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber on the wings with Oriol Rosell in the middle.

Zusi and Feilhaber provide excellent service to the forwards from the flanks, while Rosell adds some snarl in the middle similar to Beckerman for RSL. With an excellent pair on the outside like Zusi and Feilhaber, the attack will be strengthened as they look to get forward.

But Sporting could be left picking the ball out of the back of its net if RSL hits on a quick counter-attack, which a three-man midfield allows.

Another close call with world-class players on both sides. Zusi and Feilhaber are outstanding wide options, but will have to do a ton of running to provide cover for the back four.

EDGE: REAL SALT LAKE

DEFENSE: Both clubs come into Saturday's final with solid defensive records. Sporting allowed just 30 goals during the regular season and finished with a plus-17 goal difference, while RSL allowed 41 goals and ended the regular year with a plus-16 differential.

Sporting boasts arguably the best defense pairing in the league with U.S. international Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin in the middle and Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic out wide.

Collin and Besler work extremely well together and command the box on aerial challenges. Besler also gives the attack a boost as he can launch long throw- ins into the penalty area.

On the RSL side, the Claret-and-Cobalt are likely to send out U.S. international Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert and Chris Schuler.

None of those four will strike fear into the hearts of attackers, but they work quite well as a unit and can jump into the final third effectively. Schuler, in particular, can be a threat on set pieces for the club.

This one's not quite as close as Besler and Collin are better than anything RSL can put out.

EDGE: SPORTING KANSAS CITY

GOALKEEPING: It's a top-tier matchup between the sticks and Rimando gets the nod for RSL, with Jimmy Nielsen standing between the posts for Sporting.

Both players are among the best goalkeepers in the league as they each finished in the top three of the final voting for Goalkeeper of the Year this season.

Rimando, a U.S. international and RSL's longest-tenured player, had an outstanding season, posting nine shutouts in 27 starts, while Nielsen started every game for SKC and posted 13 clean sheets.

There's really not much in this matchup as both players are top class.

EDGE: EVEN

COACHING: It's an intriguing managerial matchup between RSL's Jason Kreis and Sporting's Peter Vermes.

Vermes has been at the helm of SKC since 2009 and will be looking for his first title, while Kreis took charge in Salt Lake City in 2007. Saturday's clash will be the first time in MLS history that a pair of former player turned managers will square off.

Both managers have proven their systems to be successful over their respective tenures, the question lies in which manager will make the proper substitutions and in-game adjustments.

Toss up.

EDGE: EVEN

Both sides boast quality all over the pitch and it should be a fantastic matchup. We'll go out on a limb and say RSL wins its second MLS Cup.

PREDICTION; REAL SALT LAKE 2, SPORTING KANSAS CITY 1.

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