KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Most of the focus in the buildup to MLS Cup lingered on the apparent and substantive differences between the two teams.
It comes straight from the stock identities imposed for the ease of assessment and classification. Real Salt Lake cobbles together long sequences in possession with its vaunted 4-4-2 formation. Sporting Kansas City disrupts its opposition and wins the ball in good areas to spur the attack in its 4-3-3 setup.
Those observations are all well and good, but they fail to capture the nuances ahead in Saturday afternoon’s final. Both teams are complete, well-rounded outfits capable of operating at a high standard in several different ways. They have their strengths and their weaknesses like all outfits, but they perform proficiently in most departments.
By establishing an effective baseline in a variety of scenarios, RSL and Sporting navigated through the postseason and reached the final match of the campaign. They must now figure out how to dictate terms against an equally competent opponent and seize those rare moments when they can exploit the opposition to determine the outcome of a tense, tight affair.
1. Establishing the basic operating principles: The bitterly cold conditions, the potentially slippery surface and the significant stakes at hand require a return to fundamentals first and foremost. Both sides must avoid mistakes (particularly on set pieces, a strength and a worry on both ends) and maintain their composure for the duration of the affair. They must also grapple earnestly to ensure their potential advantages are not squandered for reasons solely within their dominion.
“It’ll definitely be a physical affair,” Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “For Kansas City, all 11 players play really hard and tough. That’s what we’re going to have to try and match. I’m expecting a really physical game.”
2. Breaking Sporting’s relentless pressure: Sporting manifests its robust approach to the game in two particular ways: it fouls intelligently to break up coherent movements through midfield and it presses earnestly to close down space and gain possession in good spots.
RSL must find a way to cope with Sporting’s inevitable desire to interrupt its usual cadence in possession. No MLS team is better than Sporting at stopping the other team from playing through the center of the park. The visitors must move the ball quickly and tidily in order to relieve the pressure, settle into their preferred rhythm and string together the sequences required to create chances from the run of play.