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MLS Cup preview: Real Salt Lake meets Sporting Kansas City to decide Major League Soccer’s 18th championship

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KANSAS CITY – Playing careers will be defined and future coaching careers could be shaped Saturday on a bone-chilling afternoon at Sporting Park, where Major League Soccer’s 18th championship will be decided.

Sporting Kansas City will look for its second MLS Cup title overall, but the first for this current bunch, when the match against Real Salt Lake kicks off on ESPN just after 4 p.m. ET.

RSL, meanwhile, will aim for its second championship in five years, with many of the same central figures still around from the winners who triumphed over David Beckham and Landon Donovan in MLS Cup 2009, that one played in Seattle.

Saturday’s coaches are a big part of the plotlines here. RSL’s Jason Kreis was the youngest MLS manager to claim the title when he won in 2009 as a 36-year-old. He’s still considered one of the bright young minds of the business – so much so that well-heeled New York City FC has targeted Kreis as the choice to build their club. We’ll find out soon after Saturday’s contest if Salt Lake’s intense, introspective leader will remain in Utah or aim for something bigger.

On the other bench, a win Saturday for SKC manager Peter Vermes would tick the one unchecked box on his own promising managerial career. Kansas City has been a solid performer and U.S. Open Cup winner over the last three seasons, but this is his first time in the league’s ultimate match. Win Saturday and, who knows, perhaps we’ll all start mentioning Vermes along with Kreis as a potential, future U.S. national team manager.

The other looming story line: We already know Saturday’s match will set a record for coldest MLS Cup yet, much further on the frigid scale than the other chilly championships, rainy nights in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and in Seattle in 2009, and a wind-swept night in Toronto in 2010. Temperatures were in the low 40s for those; they’ll be down into the low 20s at best, and perhaps into the teens at Sporting Park.

An underground heating system should keep the field from freezing; it looked to be holding up fine as Real Salt Lake trained there Friday afternoon.

This is Major League Soccer’s second year under a format that gives host duties to the finalist with a better record. The net out means unpredictable weather, but the atmosphere inside a packed ground will be worlds beyond all those years of neutral-site deciders witnessed by largely indifferent audiences.

How will the game play out? Defensively, most likely, thanks to the dominant figures involved; A majority of the best players at Sporting Park on Saturday will be goal preventers more than goal producers, the goalkeepers, defenders and defensive-minded midfielders.

This crop of crème starts with Real Salt Lake center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler have found the sweet spot lately, a major reason RSL dispatched the two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy and then blew past Portland, which was everyone’s stylish choice to win the West.

source: Getty ImagesBut Sporting KC’s pair of center backs stand every bit as respected: U.S. international Matt Besler is the brains and irascible Frenchman Aurelien Collin is the brawn, if you will. Either way, they are quite effective, guiding the way to the league’s top goals against average over 2013.

There are, of course, goal scorers afoot, too. Robbie Findley, who scored in RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup win, has been huge in this year’s playoffs. Playmaker Javier Morales (left, in the middle) has been exceptional, as well, and the ability to find Findley on the break (probably behind one of the SKC fullbacks if they stray too far into the attack) is RSL’s top scoring ploy.

For the home team, during the Eastern Conference finals win over Houston, former U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was finally the playmaking presence everyone thought he could be upon this year’s arrival into the heartland. On their games, he and fellow pass-master Graham Zusi operating out of the 4-3-3 can create plenty of opportunities for whichever forwards are up in something of a rotation Kansas City.

MORE ProSoccerTalk MLS CUP COVERAGE

  • Real Salt Lake

Report says Jason Kreis on sure track to take NYCFC job; the RSL manager just frowns

Looking back on RSL’s top moment as a club, the 2009 MLS Cup

Real Salt Lake in 2013: the “not-so-rebuilding” year

Looking back on 2013: Talking through Real Salt Lake’s path to MLS Cup

  • Sporting Kansas City

What we learned as SKC dispatched Houston in the Eastern finals

Sporting KC’s new way; the team is far more versatile today

MLS Cup 2000 flashback: Meola, Molnar and the SKC heroes

The Benny Feilhaber conundrum; has Peter Vermes finally cracked the code?

Notes from Sporting Kansas City’s Thursday press conference

Sporting Kansas City’s key players

  • Team versus team

MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

MLS Cup positional edges: Forwards

  • MLS Cup general

MLS Cup will close banner 2013 season for Sporting Park

MLS Cup first: manager who are both former players in the league

Debunking the myth of Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake as bitter rivals

MLS Cup history: the three best finals yet

Looking at how the playoff format worked in 2013

MLS Snapshot: San Jose Earthquakes 1-2 Sporting KC (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): Too many teams qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. There, I said it. Because MLS rules are written as such, two of Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will likely make it this year, and that’s two too many. On Saturday, the former most narrowly outplayed an even worse San Jose Earhthquakes side, to the tune of 2-1, to go fifth in the Western Conference and move eight points clear of the 7th-place Sounders. The worst part about the current playoff structure: one of the above mentioned sides will almost certainly get hot in the postseason, after doing very little over the course of 34 games to establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. You know, just like the Timbers did last year. Anyway, Dom Dwyer, Simon Dawkins and Kevin Ellis scored the goals on the night. Neither side is any good, nor should they be in the playoffs. That’s MLS.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Dwyer heads home for the early opener — The ball from Paulo Nagamura was inch-perfect, and the header by Dwyer was unstoppable.

42′ — Coelho whiffs, Dawkins makes it 1-1 — That’s just unlucky, if you’re Nuno Coelho.

81′ — Ellis bundles the corner kick home for 2-1 — A fitting winner to this game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: Dwyer (7′), Dawkins (42′), Ellis (81′)

MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 Colorado Rapids (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): And … exhale. Realistically speaking, the Colorado Rapids probably watched their hopes of catching and passing FC Dallas in the race for the Supporters’ Shield when they blew not one, not two, but three leads away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, settling for a 3-3 draw in the end. Dominique Badji put the visitors 1-0 up after eight minutes, which was also the halftime score. The final 39 minutes would feature five goals, and a red card. Kendall Waston brought the hosts level in the 51st minute, then was sent off in the 56th minute, and Shkelzen Gashi made it 2-1 from the penalty spot a minute later. Pedro Morales scored for 2-2 in the 70th, but Gashi hit an inch-perfect free kick for 3-2 just five minutes later. Erik Hurtado scored in the 93rd minute for 3-3. The Rapids are safe in the Western Conference’s playoff places (currently second), while a draw is nowhere near enough to save Vancouver’s season. At least it was exciting, though.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

8′ — Badji rolls it into an empty net for 1-0 — Marlon Hairston took one for the team when he clattered into David Ousted, but was a quick enough thinker to lay the ball off for Badji, who made no mistake with his wide open chance.

51′ — Waston rises above the crowd for 1-1 — Kendall Waston … still really big, and dangerous on set pieces.

57′ — Waston sees red, Gashi converts the PK — Kendall Waston … red card. That’s Kendall Waston bingo, right? Gashi converted the ensuing penalty kick, and the Rapids were 2-1 ahead.

70′ — Morales finishes a quick move down the left — Erik Hurtado flashed the skill, Giles Barnes provided the cut-back, and Morales kept his wits about him on the finish. A man down, but back on level terms, for now.

75′ — Gashi hits a free kick pure as can be — Gashi couldn’t have picked the ball up, carried it to goal, and placed it over the line anymore perfectly than he hit this one.

90+3′ — Hurtado bring Vancouver level one last time — To come back from a goal down, and a man down, twice … that’s pretty impressive. It’s far more demoralizing, though, for the Rapids.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Shkelzen Gashi

Goalscorers: Badji (8′), Waston (51′), Gashi (57′ – PK, 75′), Morales (70′), Hurtado (90+3′)

MLS Snapshot: DCU 4-1 Orlando City | Red Bulls 1-0 Impact (video)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: Nick DeLeon #14 and Lamar Neagle #13 celebrate a second half goal by Fabian Espindola #10 of D.C. United (R) against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): On Friday, I billed D.C. United vs. Orlando City SC as something a “win to remain in the playoff race” matchup. On Saturday, DCU were the only side to show up to RFK Stadium hoping to further their case for a place in the postseason. Patrick Mullins bagged a brace for Ben Olsen’s side, bringing his tally to seven goals since being acquired via trade in late July, while Lloyd Sam found paydirt for the second time since also being acquired via trade, in early July. Juliao Baptista pulled a goal back for the Lions, 3-0 down by that point. Julian Buescher restored the three-goal lead in the 90th minute, and that was that. Now level on games played with the New England Revolution, DCU currently sit a point ahead of the Revs for the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference (New England are away to Columbus Crew SC on Sunday).

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

34′ — Mullins taps home to make it 1-0 — Mullins’ instincts inside the penalty area are exceptional. He’s one of those guys who always knows where to be, and exactly when to be there.

51′ — Sam heads past Bendik to double the lead — With the entire Orlando defense seemingly asleep, Sam was left all alone seven yards out.

53′ — Mullins goes far post for 3-0 — The window through which he had to slot this ball was quite small, but no problem for Mullins.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Patrick Mullins

Goalscorers: Mullins (34′, 53′), Sam (51′), Baptista (72′), Buescher (90′)


The game in 100 words (or less): The Eastern Conference is no more discernible today than it was on opening day of the 2016 season. After nearly seven months of games, the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and New York City FC all sit on 48 points (TFC with a game in hand) after the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Daniel Royer scored the game’s only goal, right on the hour mark, when it was beginning to look like a breakthrough would never come, for either side. That’s 13 games without a loss for Jesse Marsch’s side (just six wins), who along with the other two sides on 48 points, has secured a place in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs berth.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Piatti blazes wide after a long run — Ignacio Piatti did brilliantly until the finish. He also had Drogba making the underneath run to the far post.

41′ — Bush denies Royer from inside the six — Royer got on the end of this Chris Duvall cross, and had he put it either side of Evan Bush, he’d have made it 1-0 to the home team.

60 ‘ — Royer heads it past Bush to break the deadlock — Duvall once again served up the tantalizing ball from the right flank, and Royer did the rest to bag his first MLS goal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Daniel Royer

Goalscorers: Royer (60′)

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, center, shields the ball from Philadelphia Union's Richie Marquez, left, as Ken Tribbett looks on during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Another week goes by, and the world remains clueless with regard to the top three places in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Toronto FC entered the weekend with a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC; then, NYCFC won big on Friday to go a point ahead. With RBNY still to face the Montreal Impact on Saturday, all three sides could finish the weekend on 48 points, a three-way tie atop the East, following TFC’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. The home side went down a goal in the first half, via Alejandro Bedoya’s firt MLS goal — a chipped beauty (WATCH HERE) — before Justin Morrow played the role of unlikely hero, snatching TFC’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Saturday’s game marked TFC’s third without Sebastian Giovinco (quad/adductor injuries). TFC have won five of a possible nine points without the reigning — soon-to-be-back-to-back? — MLS MVP.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

25′ — Bedoya chips Irwin for 1-0 — It was just about the most difficult route to goal, but Bedoya wasn’t fazed one bit. Poor Clint Irwin, he was hardly even off his line. (WATCH HERE)

43′ — Irwin makes the point-blank save on Herbers — Reaction saves from point-blank range don’t get much better than this one by Irwin. Keeping his side in it.

70′ — Morrow slots home to bring TFC level — Jonathan Osorio did brilliantly to keep his composure with ample opportunity to take a difficult shot toward goal. Instead, he played Morrow through, and the full back finished the chance like a world-class striker.

90+3′ — Altidore hacked down in the box, no PK given — Ismail Elfath had long ago swallowed his whistle, apparently, because Jozy Altidore was hacked down inside the penalty area by C.J. Sapong, and TFC were absolutely bewildered by the no-call.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Alejandro Bedoya

Goalscorers: Bedoya (25′), Morrow (70′)