KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The obvious lesson after 10 rounds of penalties: There isn’t much separating Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, a message that comes across crystal clear in the final score (1-1). But for a team that barely missed out on a second Major League Soccer title, there are a few other, minor lessons to take from Saturday’s performance:
Experience mattered early
Sporting Kansas City earned the right to host MLS Cup, an advantage that nearly paid off early. When Tony Beltran was getting beat early by Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic, that was Sporting taking advantage of a their home field before the visitors had time to adjust. The entire east flank of Sporting Park’s pitch was frozen solid.
Real Salt Lake knew what they were in for, though. They knew the elements would be a factor, the crowd would pile on the pressure, and Sporting would come with their characteristic intensity. Eventually RSL was able to adjust, leveraging the experience of a team whose core has been together for over five years.
Would a less-experienced team have been able to weather the storm? Possibly, but it’s not hard to explain RSL absorbing Kansas City’s energy in terms of a squad’s been there, done that past. Perhaps that past didn’t include a situation that mirrored Saturday’s challenges, but having adapted to a myriad challenges over the last five years, Real Salt Lake was able to adjust. They got to halftime even.
The Jason Kreis story was a non-factor
Again, this is where experience mattered, but all the controversy around Jason Kreis’s will he, won’t he decision? It didn’t matter. Asking players after the game, the story was clearly a non-issue. The players have long come to grips with the fact their head coach might move on. There was no added urgency, no sense that this would be an end of the road of sorts. Generally satisfied with their performance, the team was left to rue a series of near-misses, not anything that might happen this offseason.
Rimando’s penalty kick mastery didn’t shine through
If the game went to kicks, conventional wisdom held, Real Salt Lake would have the advantage. Nick Rimando is the man you want between the pipes, the league’s most successful goalkeeper on penalty kicks having already won an MLS Cup shootout in 2009. If Kansas City was going to win on Saturday, they needed to do so before a shootout.
Not so. In fact, Rimando was out-shone in the shootout by Jimmy Nielsen, who guessed correctly on three of the last four tries. The only one he didn’t read correctly? Lovel Palmer’s blast off the crossbar.
Perhaps Rimando didn’t fail as much as he was beaten, but of eight penalty shots that went on frame, he only saved one. While nobody’s going to say he should have done better, he wasn’t nearly as unbeatable as the pre-shootout talk would have you believe. Rimando was second-best.
For RSL’s center halves, it was only a matter of time
Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler had another strong game, but on Kansas City’s only goal, Schuler was beaten. Aurélien Collin got above him and kept him on the ground for Sporting’s second half goal, heading home the corner that pulled back Álvaro Saborío’s opener.
Given how many set piece chances Real Salt Lake was allowing, it was only a matter of time. Between corner kicks conceded and the fouls committed deep in their own end, RSL was rolling the die too often against a team that has Graham Zusi providing service, Collin and C.J. Sapong attacking crosses.
Although Borchers and Schuler did a decent job throughout the match, the junior member of the pair was eventually beaten. It was only a matter of time.
No one remembers how you lose
Over the past four years, Real Salt Lake has been the beneficiary of our selective memories. Few people have dwell on how they won their first title, even if it was on kicks. All that matters is that they were champions in 2009. Nobody cares that they won by tiebreaker.
For 2013, those selective memories will work against them. Ten rounds of penalty kicks imply there was almost nothing between the two sides, but thanks to a crossbar, an MLS Cup sits between Sporting and Salt Lake.
“Almost champions”? It’s just not part of our lexicon. Real Salt Lake know it. It’s what makes this loss so hard.