MLS Cup 2013

When will we see MLS teams again? Sooner than you think

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Major League Soccer’s offseason may seem interminably long by world soccer standards, an idea that gained real momentum once U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann drew a circle around it two years ago and cited it as an impediment to the Major League Soccer-based players being the very best they can be.

While MLS has done a lot to shorten the off-season (on both ends, that is, starting earlier in late-winter and going far deeper into late fall), the gap between seasons remains long compared to a lot of leagues.

But compared to traditional American sports, this thing is a short stack of pancakes.

Consider that the layoff between NFL’s Super Bowl and the very front end of training camp for the “helmet football” teams is nearly six months.

A three-plus month gap separates the NBA finals from the opening of training camps. (The gap for most teams is far longer, as the NBA playoffs last almost two months.)

Major League Soccer’s gap between the MLS Cup and the opening of training camp? About six weeks. (One staff member from Real Salt Lake saw me after Saturday’s MLS Cup final and, remembering an annual preseason trip I take into Arizona for MLS networking and fact-gathering and such, he quipped, “Well, see you in two weeks in Arizona!”)

So when, exactly, will we see MLS teams again?

Next year’s MLS draft is set for Jan. 16, 2014 in Philadelphia. There will be plenty of off-season news between now and then, but that is the first really solid newsmaker day.

Typically, teams spend about six weeks in preseason training. With a March 8 first kick for MLS in 2014, expect clubs to begin reporting a few days after the draft (the week beginning Jan. 19). They’ll conduct physicals and jump a few other procedural hoops, and probably get on the field that week or early the next week, latest.

Bad breaks? Bad luck? Neither defined Real Salt Lake’s MLS Cup

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The general mood around Real Salt Lake’s locker room after Saturday’s MLS Cup final was one that rued their missed chances. In addition to losing the title game in a 10-round penalty kick shootout, the team hit the woodwork three times in the match’s first 73 minutes. On a number of occasions, the Western Conference champions were within inches of avoiding extra time, even if their hosts seemed to generate more good chances over the match’s 120 minutes.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City crowned 2013 MLS champions after 10 rounds of penalty kicks]

No doubt, had Robbie Findley or Javier Morales finished into their open nets in the 29th and 73rd minutes, Real Salt Lake could have been celebrating come minute 91, but to label those bad breaks is a little misleading. Perhaps this a bit pedantic, but there is a difference between bad luck and not finishing your chances, and when you miss an empty net, it’s the latter. Hitting the post isn’t bad luck. It’s a missed shot.

Likewise, attributing a shootout loss to bad luck is also slightly skewed. Just because the probability of winning a shootout might fall close to 50 percent doesn’t mean the “coin flip” analogy is a good one. When you toss a true coin in the air, you have no real control if it lands on heads or tails. Players do have some control over whether they make their penalty kicks, and while the nature of a shootout means we probably won’t get enough kicks to determine if one team is truly better than the other, the process almost always tells us which team took their five (or, in this case, 10) kicks better.

On Saturday, Sporting performed better in the shootout, and it wasn’t just luck. Álvaro Saborío and Lovel Palmer’s misses represented a lack of execution, while Jimmy Nielsen’s saves on Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez  were the combination of research, intuition, luck, and execution.

There were a couple of areas where factors beyond RSL’s control may have cost them. The weather (and its resulting influence on the surface) was a potential advantage for Sporting Kansas City, whose familiarity with the environment and turf appeared to help early. But in the second half, the conditions worked in Real Salt Lake’s favor, with Jimmy Nielsen unable to move effectively in a frozen south penalty box. The conditions could have differentiated the teams, but that’s not how it worked out.

Then there was the controversial second half non-call on Aurélien Collin, who was already carrying a yellow card. His takedown of Robbie Findley just before his game-tying goal would likely have drawn a caution under other circumstances; namely, if Collin wasn’t already in danger of being sent off. If you feel a yellow is a yellow regardless of the situation, Hilario Grajeda should have sent the Sporting defender off. Unfortunately (like it or not), you’ll have trouble finding an official who has such an unsympathetic implementation of the rules. Right or wrong, Collin stays on in that situation in almost any other postseason game.

So it’s unclear where Real Salt Lake suffered any bad luck. And although there were a couple of instances that could be described as bad breaks, the better terminology is missed opportunity. Real Salt Lake’s undoing on Saturday was their failure to make the most of their chances, not the coins flipping in Sporting’s favor.

Sporting didn’t win by much, but they did win in a way that transcended fortune or luck. They deserve the respect of having their performance acknowledged.

Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis sounds like a man about to leave

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Real Salt Lake Manager Jason Kreis may surprise us all and stick around for yet another season in Utah. He’s got a lot of reasons to stay, starting with an area of the country he and his family love, and a terrific core of players who seem to have plenty of achievement ahead.

But he sure sounds for all the world like a man who just coached his last game at Real Salt Lake, like a young man about to leave home and go off to college, so to speak, out to see what else is out there in the big world.

He has the New York City FC position in pocket – if he wants it, that is. Speculation is high that Kreis will take the job, even though he surely would have preferred to go out a winner. His words and actions in Saturday’s post-game setting do nothing to dissuade those who think the man is gone.

Kreis was quite philosophical about it all, still not answering questions directly about his future, as he has steadfastly refused for weeks now. But as my ProSoccerTalk colleague Richard Farley said it, Kreis seems like a guy who “has already taken all this and put it in a time capsule for himself.”

Kreis talked, for instance, about the hectic last two weeks, about the travel arrangements and family and tickets and all the little hassles that come with a big event like this one. He said he thought those last two weeks were hard.

“But what happens over the next two days is going to be really, really hard,” he said.

That sound like a guy who is about to announce a decision to sign on for another Rio Tinto hitch?

Kreis, typically affable but intense as they come, is someone who does not take losing well. But he was surprisingly tranquil about Saturday’s disappointment in an eventful, exciting match that went 10 rounds into a penalty kick tiebreaker. Disappointed, for sure, but composed and reflective about it all.

He went on and on about how proud he was of the group, how appreciative he was of a season that still looks like some over-achievement, considering some pretty notable roster moves. He almost seemed more melancholy than disappointed.

“I’d be really, really pleased, just over the moon, with all that the group did this year. They over-achieved,” Kreis said. “They proved me wrong, with what I thought, and it’s just been and incredible, incredible year.”

What we learned in MLS Cup about Real Salt Lake

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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

source:  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.

What we learned at MLS Cup about Sporting Kansas City

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A few take-aways from Sporting Kansas City’s side on the clubs’ MLS Cup triumph Saturday over Real Salt Lake at Sporting Park:

  • Jimmy Nielsen is good at penalty kicks, too

Nick Rimando’s uncanny ability to turn away spot shots is something close to legend in MLS. So when the clock struck 120 and moved toward the penalty spot, the inclination was to believe RSL had the edge. Maybe a big one.

But clearly SKC keeper Jimmy Nielsen knows a thing or two about penalty kicks, too. He saved one straight away (and watched another one fly well high), putting the visitors in position to chase the score through the early rounds. Later Nielsen guessed correctly on Sebastien Velasquez, cradling the young RSL shooter’s attempt and adding pressure on RSL shooters once again.

  • Claudio Bieler misses his share

Claudio Bieler came close to scoring. Then again, everyone came close to scoring in a match where blown opportunities were a big part of the bitterly cold night.

The problem for Bieler is that he gets paid to score goals, and paid quite well as a Designated Player.

At least he got a chance Saturday, which wasn’t always the case in the 2013 playoffs. Young striker Dom Dwyer once again got the start over the much-better compensated Argentine veteran, but wasn’t getting much done against RSL’s highly effective center backs. So in came Bieler in the 72nd minute, and it didn’t take him long to find some room in front of RSL goal.

His 79th minute blast from about 14 yards, a sweet little pass from left back Seth Sinovic rolled nicely along the ground, flew well high.

When the euphoria dies down on Sporting KC’s big achievement, what happens going forward with Bieler will once again be a big talker around SKC supporters.

  • Graham Zusi eventually finds some spaces

One of the night’ stop individual battles happened along Sporting KC’s left flank, where U.S. international Graham Zusi and almost-international Tony Beltran went at it. Beltran won his share of skirmishes early, but Zusi was causing trouble after the break and into the extra time.

Even as Zusi began finding spaces, isolating Beltran one-on-one by pulling out wider, the RSL right back made Kansas City’s U.S. international work. Zusi was honest in his defensive duties, never failing to get back and assist left back Seth Sinovic.

  • Kansas City as a big-time sports town

The weather was bone-chilling, but you could not tell it from the crowd. The seats were packed well before kickoff, and no one left, even as temperatures dropped into the teens. Clearly, this is a great sports town.

In fact, one of the week’s really cool moments came with Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid talked about Sporting KC and wished the soccer team luck.

“This is an incredible sports town,” a Champagne-drenched Peter Vermes said after the game. “The fans have had their downs for many years but they keep supporting their teams. From our perspective, we’re happy to reward them for the support they have continued to show through thick and thin. It’s an exciting time for the city and an exciting time for Sporting.”

  • Oriol Rosell’s injury hurt Sporting KC

So much was happening during an eventful championship that it’s easy to forget this: Sporting had to play most of the match without injured, starting defensive midfielder Oriol Rosell.

Rosell suffered a sprained ankle and had to leave after just eight minutes. When Lawrence Olum entered the match, his was the earliest substitution in MLS history.

Olum had not played since Nov. 3, missing three matches in the interim. Either way, he’s not as effective in the position as Rosell, a crafty Spaniard who was Vermes’ starter at the position from Day 1 in 2013.

As a result, Paulo Nagamura had to drop in and play a little more defensively, which usually meant one fewer man joining the attack for Sporting KC.