As the LA Galaxy has shown us over the last two years, if you can get big performances out of the your best players on MLS Cup Saturday, a champagne shower awaits in the locker room. Two years ago, it was Beckham-to-Donovan-to-Keane that won the title, while last year Omar Gonzalez become the first defender to claim MLS Cup’s Most Valuable Player award.
Sporting Kansas City’s stars may not be as bright as LA’s (who’s are?), but the Eastern Conference champions have a clear group of all-star caliber players who are capable of defining Saturday’s game.
We start in attack:
Graham Zusi, F/M – Consider the list of statistics where Zusi was Sporting’s leader: assists; key passes; accurate crosses; through balls; successful dribbles; fouls drawn. It’s the exact list you’d expect from somebody who serves as the team’s focal point. Although Sporting have other ways to create goals, life becomes much more difficult if Zusi’s not on his game.
It’s also why the idea of Zusi not getting shots on target shouldn’t be too concerning. Sporting’s U.S. international addressed this notion of Thursday – that two-plus postseasons without a ball on frame hints he’s struggling in the postseason. In truth, his role as a creator becomes even more important against organized defenses more willing to let him drift back into midfield than generate chances moving toward goal. You know, the exact type of defenses you face in the postseason.
No matter the role, Zusi can hurt you. Goal scorer or creator, from open play or set pieces, Sporting’s chances are likely to come through their Best XI attacker.
Matt Besler, D – Another Best XI player, Besler has surpassed Omar Gonzalez as the league’s best defender, his time with the U.S. Men’s National Team the only thing keeping the 26-year-old from claiming a second straight MLS Defender of the Year honor. Perhaps the most complete center back in the league, Besler doesn’t possess one dominant trait. Instead, his blend of skill, awareness, strength, vision, and versatility create a player with no obvious weaknesses.
On a team that likes to play possession soccer, one that wants its fullbacks to get forward, he’s the perfect, steadying presence at the back, one you can trust to make the right reads as well as serve as an outlet when the team needs to retain the ball. Go through the rest of the league’s defenders and it’s hard to identify another center back with the skills to step into Besler’s boots.
And a potential, overlooked twist: Besler has the best long throw in Major League Soccer, one that becomes particularly dangerous with Aurélien Collin and C.J. Sapong on the pitch. Even if Real Salt Lake’s Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler can handle those targets, Besler’s accuracy can pick out other teammates – players exploiting room exposed after Collin and Sapong collapse the defense.
Jimmy Nielsen, G – We covered Nielsen when breaking down Saturday’s goalkeepers, but against an RSL team that’s scored seven times in their last three games, he could prove Sporting’s safety net. In 2013, Nielsen led the league in wins and goals against average, finishing second in shutouts. Winner of 2012’s Goalkeeper of the Year award, the 36-year-old Dane is capable of keeping his team in the game even if his defense breaks down. If RSL has as much success against Sporting’s back line as they did against Portland’s, Nielsen may have to live up to his “White Puma” moniker.
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