MLS Cup positional edges: Looks at the defenses for Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City

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Early this year, when assessing and comparing the Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake defenses, any analyst worth his or her weight in Brazuca match balls would have handed the check mark to SKC and happily moved on.

Not that Real Salt Lake’s back line wasn’t worthy; Sporting KC’s tough and talented bunch was just that good. Sporting led the league in fewest goals allowed in 2013, a fact that surprised absolutely no one.

But after watching the playoff performance of RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, absolutely dominant in series wins over Los Angeles and (especially) Portland, this should now be considered about as close as it can be. Both of the back lines to be showcased Saturday at ridiculously cold Sporting Park are MLS Cup worthy units, and then some.

It’s not just the center backs, either. For Kansas City, fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are tough, talented and always happy to scoot forward in support of the attack. Witness Sinovic’s big run up the left side and mighty finish that supplied his team the conference semifinal series game-winner against New England.

But those two have nothing on Tony Beltran (right) or Chris Wingert (left). Neither is quite national team material, but like Myers and Sinovic, they are just a small notch below international status, certainly blessed sufficiently in all the areas that make an upper echelon MLS outside back: one-on-one defending, passing out of the back, crossing and speed to move up and down the flank (in systems that demand it).

source:  But both defenses revolve around those imposing center backs. (Well, and goalkeepers that provide good information to keep the elements linked.) Aurelien Colilin is something close to unbeatable at times, setting his team’s physical tone with an edge that frequently walks the line. Central partner Matt Besler (pictured above) provides the balance, accomplishing his defensive mention with a sharp read and a savvy ability to slip into the right spots, and then distribute sensibly out of them. His gradual rise to U.S. national team starter has been inspirational.

Speaking of rises: Schuler’s terrific work on the back half of RSL’s surprisingly bright 2013 campaign has made the Rio Tinto faithful more or less forget how much they miss Jamison Olave, who was traded to New York a year back. Alongside Borchers (pictured above and to the left) the pair helped limit Portland to just two shots on goal in the second leg in Oregon, in a match where the Timbers were determined to attack with abandon. It was truly one of the best paired performances of the 2013 MLS post-season.

Weaknesses along the back lines? Not many. If we are picking nits, perhaps Collin’s volatile nature could get him in early yellow card trouble, forcing him to drag around the booking and recalibrate accordingly. Or perhaps the collective SKC desire to press high and get the outside backs forward when playing at home could leave the flanks vulnerable to a sharp-eyed playmaker and a fast forward. (Javier Morales and Robbie Findley, anyone?)

EDGE: dead even

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Saborío, Wingert’s returns a reminder: Real Salt Lake may have another level

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Let me tip my hand here and let Sporting Kansas City’s backers try to level my opinion, because after watching each teams’ first four games of the postseason, Real Salt Lake looks like the slightly better team going into next Saturday’s MLS Cup final. With enough people leaning the other way, saying this may just be Sporting KC’s year, I feel like I may be missing something obvious.

Talent-wise, the teams looks pretty even, but when you look at their postseason performances, you see sides preforming at slightly different levels. RSL beat Portland by three goals in the Western Conference final, whereas Sporting had to come from behind in leg two to eliminate a Houston team playing without Will Bruin and Ricardo Clark. A one-goal win (2-1) saw Sporting past their nemeses.

Whereas Real Salt Lake posted a 3-1-0 record against Portland and the LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City went 2-1-1 against two inferior opponents (Houston and New England). Sporting  has talent and the home field advantage to pull this off, but Real Salt Lake seem like the better team. At least, they’re playing like it.

And when they take the field on Dec. 7, there’s a chance Real Salt Lake could be even stronger than the team that came through the west. Jason Kreis’s team was missing two key players in the conference final, striker Álvaro Saborío (out both games) and left back Chris Wingert (injured in the first) forced to the sidelines against the West’s top seed. By Wednesday, though, both starters had moved back into the picture for next week’s final.

“[W]e think it’s likely [Saborío will] be available for [MLS Cup],” Jason Kreis told reporters at practice on Wednesday. Should Saborío continue to improve, the Costa Rican’s availability stands to be a major boon in KC.

Rarely healthy during the regular season, Saborío averaged a goal every 112 minutes, a rate comparable to Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo’s (109 minutes). The 31-year-old Designated Player is Real Salt Lake’s greatest scoring threat – a versatile target man that rounds out a team that has scored seven goals through four playoff games.

Rather than look at this as a straight addition, though, it’s bigger to consider how Saborío might improve on Devon Sandoval’s performance. The rookie from New Mexico had a great leg one in Sandy, scoring Real Salt Lake’s third goal in a 4-2 win. But the target man was mostly quiet in leg two, missing an early set piece chance that could have iced the match in the fourth minute.

If we’re comparing Saborío’s contribution to what Sandoval gave Sandy, the Costa Rican may not be an improvement at all. But barely done with his rookie season, Sandoval’s not yet a player that can give you that production game-in, game-out.

There’s a better chance Saborío decides Saturday’s game than Sandoval. Regardless, over the course of 90 (or 120) minutes, Real Salt Lake will be better for having both options.

The trade off’s not so murky at left back, though Wingert is more of a question mark than Saborío. Having suffered a broken rib in leg one of the conference final, Wingert may not be ready by next Saturday.

His words, on Wednesday:

“Hopefully I’m healthy enough to at least make it a tough decision on (coach) Jason (Kreis) and the staff and possibly be able to help the team, and if not, of course we’d much rather play someone else,” said Wingert.

“I want to win as much as everybody else, and if that means somebody else should be playing then so be it.”

Wingert is a clear upgrade on Lovel Palmer or Abdoulie Mansally, but as RSL showed in Portland, they’re capable of winning without their veteran left back. Yet Wingert’s ability in the air could be missed, particularly if Peter Vermes deploys C.J. Sapong on the right.

If he and Saborío both return, RSL could actually be stronger than the team that downed Portland 5-2 in the Western Conference final. If they’re clear, we’ll be left asking if Sporting’s home field advantage is enough to slow down a team firing on all cylinders.

Franklin blast all that separates LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake after leg one

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It was one of the rare occasions went LA Galaxy’s superstars were kept off a postseason scoresheet, but that doesn’t mean the night was a successful one for Real Salt Lake. Despite containing Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the West’s second seed lost Sunday night in Carson, a Sean Franklin goal just after halftime giving the two-time defending MLS champions a 1-0 win in the first of the teams’ two-legged conference semifinal.

The LA fullback found the right side of Nick Rimando’s goal in the 47th minute, a ball played from the byline rolling out of the RSL penalty area and beyond the arc . Franklin ran onto the ball and hit a one-timer from 24 yards out, the ball curling away from the RSL keeper as it spun into the nylon.

The result won’t necessarily be a disappointing one for the visitors, though. The teams meet again on Thursday in Sandy, Utah, for the second leg of their playoff series. Should LA defend their one-goal lead, they’ll move on to another Western Conference final. If RSL reverse their deficit, they’ll be the team who faces the winner of Portland versus Seattle.

Real Salt Lake began the night with a surprise, choosing a two defensive midfielder, one striker look we rarely see from Jason Kreis’s side. With normal starting forward Joao Plata unfit to play, Kreis elected to add Cuban destroy Yordany Alvarez to the base of midfield in lieu of veteran forward Robbie Findley.

The extent to which worked was unclear. Although RSL appeared to cut off LA’s ability to get at central defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, the Galaxy had prolonged success building wider, leading to chances on balls played across the six-yard box. Were it not for some timely interventions from Schuler, RSL would have conceded in the first half.

But the visitors made it to halftime unscathed, even if the stalemate wouldn’t last long. Two minutes into the second half, Keane got behind the defense down LA’s left. Near the byline, the Ireland international played a ball toward the spot, though his pass rolled through the area and out.

With Real Salt Lake’s two defensive midfielders having collapsed into the penalty area, Franklin was given plenty of time to come from deep and challenge Rimando. Cutting across the ball with his right foot, Franklin bent his shot from the middle of goal into to the back corner of Rimando’s net, the U.S. international unable to prevent the night’s only goal.

After the score, Los Angeles controlled play, but with the introduction of Sebastian Velasquez in the 61st minute, Real Salt Lake started to pose a bigger threat going forward. Unfortunately for RSL, sacrificing Alvarez (as they did in the 57th) exposed their defenders to counter attacks, with LA spending the rest of the night threatening a second goal in transition.

But Borchers and Schuler were up to the challenge, each providing multiple crucial stops to keep their team within one. When they weren’t outright winning the ball, RSL’s duo was slowing down Keane and Donovan enough to give midfielder Kyle Beckerman and fullbacks Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran time to track back. Though LA were able to get in on Rimando toward the end of the match, the Borchers-Schuler pair looked like a duo who had been working on those scenarios ever since RSL finished their season 10 days ago.

In the 80th minute, Real Salt Lake had their best chance to equalize when Chris Wingert, at the left of the area, chipped a ball over LA’s packed in defense, finding Luis Gil at the far post. The young midfielder’s attempt to hit substitute Devon Sandoval inside the six went through the box, Todd Dunivant helping to preserve Jaime Penedo’s clean sheet.

This wasn’t a case of RSL holding out for a 1-0, accepting that result ahead of their home leg. Through LA may have been the better side for much of the second half, the last quarter hour saw the visitors press for an equalizer, nearly giving up a second goal in the 85th when Keane was put behind the defense but failed to convert a one-on-one. Though neither side would add to Franklin’s opener, the final minutes maintained the spirit of a surprisingly open first 90 minutes.

Thursday’s rematch at Rio Tinto will decide it. If Sunday was any indication, this one’s not going to finish 1-0.

Goals

Los Angeles: 47′ Sean Franklin

Lineups

LOS ANGELES: Jaime Penedo; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, Kofi Opare, Todd Dunivant; Robbie Rogers (61′ Hector Jimenez), Juninho (90′ A.J. DeLaGarza, Marcelo Sarvas (82′ Rafael Garcia), Gyasi Zardes; Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane

Unused subs: Brian Rowe,  José Villarreal, Laurent Courtois, Leonardo

REAL SALT LAKE: Nick Rimando; Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert; Yordany Alvarez (57′ Robbie Findley), Kyle Beckerman; Luis Gil, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy (61′ Sebastian Velasquez); Álvaro Saborio (79′ Devon Sandoval)

Unused subs: Carlos Salcedo, Cole Grossman,  Jeff Attinella, Kenny Mansally

Chris Wingert’s hit on Kei Kamara wasn’t a red card, but it should have been

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dfpjh6mLyxM]

Fast forward to 0:50 of the highlights, above, and you’ll quickly catch up on the issue: Chris Wingert’s “challenge” at the five-second mark of last night’s match in Utah

I put challenge in quotes not to inflame the discussion. I just don’t have a good word for what happened. We usually describe a defender’s attempt to dispossess an opponent as a challenge, and since those are some of the few times we see players coming together from opposing directions, we’re sometimes a little bit loose with the word. Any confrontation is a challenge, a rule that works most of the time.

But Wingert’s “challenge” had little to do with the ball. True, if Ike Opara doesn’t send a pass in the general vicinity of Kei Kamara, Wingert has no license to clean out the Sporting KC attacker. But Wingert’s not even moving in the direction of the ball when he makes contact. This hit looks like a free safety lighting up a tight end who’s feeling too comfortable coming over the middle.

But what purpose does that serve in a soccer match? This might be a case of Sporting’s reputation preceding them. It’s no secret Kansas City is considered one of the most physical teams in the league, and before San Jose surged to national attention last season, a lot of the discussions we have about the Earthquakes’ style of play took place in more muted tones around Peter Vermes’ team. With Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar gone, it would be a mistake to assume the 2013 version of Sporting KC is as willing to rely on their physicality. But that doesn’t mean their reputation has died out. nor does it mean their philosophy is inherently different.

In that vein, it’s easy to see Wingert’s body block as a message-sender: We’re the home team. We’re the league leaders. You are not going to dictate the terms of this match. So if we have to take an early yellow card to send a message, so be it. One of our guys is going clean you out, and if it happens to be the veteran who will serve his accumulation suspension for our upcoming trip to Red Bull Arena, so be it.

Nobody’s going to confirm that’s what happened (I’m barely comfortable typing it out), so that scenario will remain somewhere between interesting and paranoid. But I just can’t answer this question in a way that doesn’t feed that paranoia: How does that hit happen at the point in the match, on that ball, with that intensity if it wasn’t in somebody’s mind before the opening whistle?

The big question Kansas City fans were asking post-match: Why wasn’t that a red card? Wingert launches himself, lowers his shoulder, and catches Kamara either in the upper chest or right under the jaw. Isn’t that serious foul play by use of “excessive force”? Perhaps the Disciplinary Committee will disagree with Matthew Foerster’s interpretation.

There seems little question that it’s excessive. FIFA guidelines define that as when a “player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” Blindsided, running at near full speed into his man, and hit unsuspecting, Kamara easily could have been hurt. At least, injury became a greater possibility than should otherwise be acceptable during an MLS match. And given the defender’s alternative (like, don’t level a guy that’s 12 yards away from the ball’s landing point), there’s no question Wingert’s hit exceeded the necessary use of force.

Alas, you’re rarely going to see a red card in the fifth second of a match. Referees just don’t want to do it. They don’t want to define matches, and while the inexperience of Foerster (officiating his 15th MLS match) was brought up after the match, that critique is more applicable to how the game was controlled than an unwillingness to reduce a team to 10 moments after kickoff.

Teams shouldn’t be given a zone at the beginning of games to stretch the rules, but that’s the reality of it. Maybe if Kamara had been hurt, we’d be having a bigger discussion about this, but for now, players are still going to have license to send messages like Wingert’s. It could be a reckless slide tackle, a borderline denial of a goal scoring chance, or a body block like Wingert’s. It’s still a rare official who wants to truly enforce the rules while the match is so young.

Are Real Salt Lake getting enough love? Probably not, and for the typical reasons

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Like it or not Middle America, people like me take you for granted. I’m a lifelong West Coaster, am used to my sports starting at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and with almost half a life in the books, I’ve become set in my ways. Before soccer writing became my profession, that meant watching an East Coast game, a West Coast game, then going to sleep. I imagine my East Coast urbanite friends did the same, albeit at different times.

The net effect is an East Coast bias. And a West Coast bias. Basically, an anti-Middle America bias that has nothing to do with politics, lifestyle, or even geography. Sometimes, it just comes down to time slots on calendars.

It’s something to consider when we think about the question implied by this tweet, with our friends at Real Salt Lake nice enough to let the world know about some of PST’s work:

[tweet http://twitter.com/RealSaltLake/status/351915069115875328]

Saying no one’s talking about Real Salt Lake may be an exaggeration. I think. I mean, I don’t really know since I haven’t actually heard anybody talking about the West’s first place team, a squad that has their conference’s best defensive record and second-best goal difference. Yet for various reasons, it seems like Jason Kreis’s team is garnering less attention than any of their conference competition, be that attention for good reasons (Portland, FC Dallas, Colorado), disappointing reasons (LA Galaxy, Seattle, San Jose, Chivas), or anything in between.

Perhaps it’s because RSL has been too consistent for too long, and in more ways than one. Since claiming their title in 2009, Real Salt Lake has been a perennial contender, playing the exact same system with the same cast of leading men: Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Nick Rimando, and over the last two-plus years, Alvaro Saborio. While RSL hasn’t necessarily been taken for granted, their stability leaves us  short on stories that haven’t already been told. Javi Morales is good … Yeah, we know!

Although they don’t have as many trophies, Real Salt Lake are like an MLS version of the San Antonio Spurs. Or Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves. We all know they’re good, but we can’t just keep talking about the same things, can we? Even when we’re talking Tim Duncan or Greg Maddux, there’s only so many times we can cover the same ground.

Of course, after what happened this offseason, that view is a bit lazy. This year’s big story about Real Salt Lake is that there are differences, even if they’re small. Will Johnson, who has been one of the best midfielders in Major League Soccer this season for Portland, had to move on this offseason. Jamison Olave, who has been excellent in defense for New York, was also traded this winter, as was Fabian Espindola, another player from that 2009 team. Those are major losses.

But in what’s become a trademark of their current run, Real Salt Lake reloaded, leveraging Major League Soccer’s best scouting  as well as what seems like endless depth. They convinced Joao Plata to come back from Ecuador, incorporated New Mexico’s Devon Sandoval, brought Olmes Garcia up from Colombia while promoting Carlos Salcedo into the senior team. They’ve brought in Aaron Maund, Lovel Palmer, Khari Stephenson, and Josh Saunders, persisting with what has to be an annoying habit (to other front offices) of getting the most out of others’ scraps. Luis Gil is getting more time, Ned Grabavoy has stepped up, and Robbie Findley’s come back from England.

In case you lost count, that’s 11 contributors who’ve either newly arrived or have picked up their game in the wake of what some people saw as a dismantling. Even RSL’s staff spoke about this as process, especially when the season started without Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert …

But who are we kidding? RSL clearly knew what they were doing. They knew the talent they had. They knew what they were capable of acquiring. They’ve come to epitome the cliché: They don’t rebuild; they reload.

Had they rebuilt, we’d probably be talking about them more. But because Garth Lagerway just keeps reloading, because Jason Kreis has his system down, we never stop to consider RSL as a new project. We only see the same stories – the same characters from a team we know is good. As a result, we don’t talk about RSL.

At least, we don’t talk about them enough. In fact, we almost don’t talk about them at all.