MLS Cup 2013: An Unpredicted Final

After a long season, MLS Cup will feature two improbable contenders
by Skylar Rolstad   |   Monday, December 02, 2013

John Hefti Photography - SKC, Sporting KC

At the beginning of the year, few would have guessed that Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 season would still be underway in December.

Missing some key players from 2012’s remarkable season in Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza, Sporting’s was forced into a situation where its younger midfielders, like Oriol Rosell and a new DP in Claudio Bieler, would have to step up and prove themselves in a league unlike any other around the world.

Players like Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Aurelien Collin, Jacob Peterson, Chance Myers and Graham Zusi laid the framework for what is an exciting young team that can compete for the top prize in MLS in 2013 and many years in the future. Besler and Collin put a first-rate line of defense in front of an aging but still league-leading goalkeeper in Jimmy Nielsen. While nothing feels temporary about this team, Sporting needed more players after last year’s dud who could score goals and win matches when it counts.

But there were a few surprising and satisfying player moves that helped SKC this season:

- Kamara came back in May from his loan to Norwich, but Sporting’s attacking mettle was tested when Kamara was bought by Middlesbrough in the summer transfer window.

- After being sent down to Orlando City, Dom Dwyer lit up the USL PRO and proved to be Sporting’s hero in the playoffs.

- A player whose prime had seemingly come and gone, Benny Feilhaber proved a worthwhile signing for SKC manager Peter Vermes.

- Mechack Jerome played an important part for Sporting KC in the early going when he stepped in for an injured Chance Myers.

- A previously disappointing player in Peterson Joseph contributed to Sporting’s exceptional regular season and won starting positions rather frequently.

The season started with an excellent 3-1 win over Philadelphia, which included a goal from Claudio Bieler in his first appearance with SKC, but Kansas City’s season also came with a fair amount of disappointment.

A run of six winless MLS games during May and June included giving up a game-winning goal at home to Seattle’s Djimi Traore. June culminated in a meltdown home loss to Orlando City in the US Open Cup’s fourth round. It was a loss amidst controversy around Kansas City not allowing their loanees, including Dwyer, to play against SKC in the Open Cup. The loss may have taught SKC a lesson the hard way, one that might be worth it on Dec. 7.

Sporting’s MLS Cup opponent Real Salt Lake is not much different. Besides being a small market team with a similar and distinct playing style, ex-player coach, and passionate fanbase, RSL’s 2013 season is very similar to Sporting.

The beginning of the year for Salt Lake held a familiar storyline. Having traded away Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Jonny Steele, RSL was seemingly taking a year to rebuild after new ownership took over. These changes were more drastic than the ones Sporting made, but nevertheless some players would have to step into starting roles if RSL were to be successful this year.

RSL took a gamble on signing Robbie Findley, an ex-USMNT forward who plied his trade in England with Nottingham Forest but did not quite cut it in the English Championship. Findley would have to be a productive partner to Alvaro Saborio in his second stint with RSL. Like Feilhaber, Findley is 28 and is challenged with reviving his career in MLS after pursuing playing time in Europe.

Saborio is a player that builds up the backbone of Real Salt Lake. Along with veterans like Ned Grabavoy, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales, RSL has been a consistent team in the Western Conference each year. Like Nielsen, RSL’s long-time goalkeeper Nick Rimando is one of the league’s best year in and year out. Younger players like Sebastian Valesquez and Devon Sandoval played huge roles in the playoffs, as Velasquez scored the winning goal in RSL’s Western Conference Semifinal against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Another young player who has performed for RSL this season, following up a breakout year in 2012, is Luis Gil.

Salt Lake also brought in Joao Plata in the offseason. Since coming to RSL from Toronto FC, Plata was a useful substitute that scored four goals this season. He was an instrumental part of RSL’s 2013 regular season.

Since the beginning of 2013, few would also have seen RSL become juggernauts in the Western Conference after casting off players that appeared to be the future of the organization.

As for being accustomed with each other on the field, Real Salt Lake holds the short end of the stick. Sporting and Real Salt Lake have met four times since 2011, three of which were wins for Sporting KC and one of which was a win for RSL. The difference between these teams may also be in Sporting KC’s favor, Real Salt Lake has not beaten Sporting at home since 2009. This will be the first time these teams meet in the postseason.

And on Saturday, these two teams, who were unlikely candidates for MLS Cup 2013, will clash for the trophy.

NEXT UP: December 7 – Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake, Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan. 4 p.m. EST, ESPN.


Univ. of Kansas
Club Domestic:
Sporting KC
Club Foreign:
AC Milan
A student at the University of Kansas. He writes for the Sporting Kansas City club column for Soccer Newsday and is a regular at Sporting Park. His passion for soccer can best be described as unhealthy.