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MLS Cup 2013: Why Real Salt Lake lifts the crown at Sporting KC

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Real Salt Lake goes into MLS Cup 2013 on Saturday, December 7 a slight underdog at Sporting Kansas City, according to European oddsmakers. That's a miracle when you consider the amount of crap that RSL fans have had to endure this week just to get tickets.

And that reason alone should incite RSL players to the level of a riot on Saturday -- because a good majority of their fans may not be able to enjoy the game in person.

Not that anyone would want to sit in projected temperatures that can only be described as near-Arctic and all (20 degrees is expected at kickoff) -- but yeah, it is the MLS Cup, and yeah, RSL fans did want to go to the biggest game in five years -- though many were reportedly left out in the proverbial cold.

In a sequence of events that can only be described by one hashtag, #ticketgate, RSL fans went from high-fiving each other on Facebook and comparing notes on which hotels they were staying in, to a collective WTF and threats of lawsuits when many had already purchased tickets via a bogus link that was posted on the Web site of a Kansas City newspaper that spread like wildfire on the Internet.

Soon after the link sprouted on the Interwebs, a Real Salt Lake staffer re-tweeted the link mistakenly from the team's official page, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. All hell broke loose, as some RSL superfans pointed fingers at RSL, SKC and Major League Soccer -- while other RSL fans remained surprisingly objective

In the aftermath, some claimed they lost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars from airline tickets and hotels they had booked and wanted recouped -- while others found more creative solutions to get to KC for the big game.
In a word, it was a mess, one that nobody confessed to creating, particularly not the home team.

Other than that nightmare, there is a game to be played on Saturday, one that could be Jason Kreis' last as head coach -- if rumors of his impending departure to New York City FC are to be believed.

NYCFC has thick pocketbooks and it's no secret that Kreis and RSL have yet to reach an agreement on a contract extension with new owner Dell Loy Hansen.

As for Real Salt Lake itself, the team is coming off of a huge win in Portland two weeks ago and now prepare for a team it doesn't get along with in Sporting Kansas City.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that RSL hates SKC more than any other team on Earth, including rival Colorado. Since the 2011 pre-season game that saw both benches clear, resulting to fisticuffs of the worst kind in the dry heat of Arizona, these two teams have played in epic, physical battles.

In the last five matches, Sporting has won three, including a brutal 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake on which KC won on a controversial call in the final minute. So some payback is in order for a number of reasons, some which have already been well documented in this article.

Here are several reasons why RSL will lift the trophy Saturday.

Experience
Simply put, RSL has played in big games before. MLS Cup 2008 versus the LA Galaxy? Check. The only MLS team to have ever played in a CONCACAF Champions League Final? Yessir, with a tear. The US Open Cup final this year? Yes, sadly. And finally, this year, with everything to lose against the No. 1 seed in the West, the Portland Timbers? Positively, and twice victorious.

And that experience, with over half of the team intact from that magical MLS Cup title run in '08 will be a huge bonus on Saturday. It might be the last time this group plays for a major title so if you're a RSL fan, you should enjoy it -- because this team could look vastly different in even one month.

What has Sporting KC done in terms of playing big games recently? Let's see. Oh, yeah, not as much. But, the KC Wizards did win a title 13 years ago.

I rest my case.

Goalkeeping
Jimmy Nielsen is a good goalkeeper but let's face facts -- he's not Nick Rimando. He's 36 and he didn't even have his best season in a Sporting uniform (he went 17-10-7).

Couple Nicky's national team experience with his recent Save of the Year honors as announced by Major League Soccer today and you have a pretty good goalkeeper -- compared to Nielsen who is probably playing into the twilight of his career.

If you examine the numbers even more, Rimando had a 14-7-6 record as a goalkeeper, arguably his best season since that magical 2010 All-Star run.

But, what sets Rimando apart from Nielsen in my opinion is the way he manages the RSL back line. Against a very dangerous Portland team the Timbers were only able to squeeze through on set pieces -- which is more of a personal responsibility than one that falls squarely on Nicky.

And if this game came down to a shoot out you would have to give the edge to Nicky as well, for that double-save he made against Colorado that earned him the Save of the Year honors in MLS proves that he can keep the claret and cobalt in the game if he has to.

Attacking
Real Salt Lake can hit you a lot of ways. They can get physical and highly technical with Alvaro Saborio and Olmes Garcia; they can mix it up and pair up Devon Sandoval or Sabo as a target, post-up guy -- and then have someone speedy like Robbie Findley or Joao Plata run underneath in support; or they can go all out at you with Garcia and Findley and try to really stretch you out.

I believe Kreis is going to go at Sporting with guns blazing -- just like he did against Portland in the first leg of the Western Conference final. I think Sandoval and Findley are going to cause major havoc on a Sporting back line that frankly hasn't seen the kinds of looks that RSL will present them.

Against New England, Sporting actually struggled in the first leg with the Revs' youth and speed, losing 2-1 -- something that Kreis will take into account here. The other thing he will remember is that the Revs were able to stretch KC out with their speed in midfield -- which is exactly how RSL manhandled Portland.

Sporting KC, on the other hand, has a few options that are good but not as deep as RSL. Claudio Bieler, or "El Taka," is very similar to Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri in that he likes to play more of a recesssed or creative role in SKC's 4-3-3 (Portland also plays a 4-3-3). Both have also scored 10 goals this season.

Bieler likes to have the ball often in various spots on the field, and so the responsibility of marking him comes down to Kyle Beckerman, RSL's holding mid. As for other Sporting attack options, Kei Kamara is always dangerous as a back to the goal type player (7 goals this season) and Dom Dwyer has come on late (2 goals) after leading Orlando City FC to a USL Pro championship not long ago.

Midfielder Graham Zusi does also have as many goals as Kei -- but he's used primarily on the wing as opposed to up the middle and he'll be shadowed by Ned Grabavoy all game long.

The main reason I don't think KC has a chance in this game is that their forwards have not proven that they can score at will in the past two months of play. November was a little better than October -- but it was certainly not the month that RSL had in terms of scoring.

But, October was horrific for Sporting, as it scored just four goals across all competitions for the month. Those numbers will not win you championships and despite many believing that KC's No. 1 defense in MLS will shut Real Salt Lake down, I'm sorry; I don't buy it at all.

Summary

The difference in this game will be RSL controlling the midfield possession and nobody, not even the LA Galaxy with its cavalcade of stars, has been able to shut down RSL's potent attack in the playoffs. The numbers speak volumes: seven goals in four playoff matches.

Whatever RSL is doing with its midfield, it is clear it is working. The claret and cobalt had the second-most goals in Major League Soccer this year and they're up against the No. 1 defense in Sporting KC.

But, and here's the big if, Sporting has not been able to score goals on a consistent basis since September. In the first two rounds of these playoffs KC barely got by a decent but young New England squad -- before getting all it could handle from a game but obviously fading Houston team.

Sporting simply has not played an attack that is at or near the level of RSL -- and that will make all the difference on Saturday. It's a shame these teams only met once during the regular season because RSL really and truly does have a chip on its shoulder going into this game. You can see it in interviews and during training sessions and you can tell that the club was happy with its Western Conference title -- but it's not enough for them to go home with that. Losing the US Open Cup still stings like nothing else to these guys.

And it's really that difference up top, that decibel level of scoring that RSL has reached -- not the expected crowd noise from a partisan SKC following -- that Sporting hasn't been able to replicate in months.

KC won't be able to get goals again on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) and that difference in attacking talent will give RSL its second major title in five years.

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