This MLS Cup Matchup Makes Sense

Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake were on a crash course all year for a final
by Herb Scribner   |   Thursday, December 05, 2013

John Hefti Photography - SKC, Sporting KC

This year’s MLS Cup entrants make a lot of sense.

All season long we’ve been following the 19 MLS clubs, waiting to see who emerged as the favorites to lift the playoff trophy. Red Bull New York finished the league on top, and in most countries around the world, that would be the end of the story. But right behind Red Bull were the Portland Timbers, Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake.

Both Portland and New York vanished in the playoffs at different points, which left both second seeds RSL and SKC to finish off the season in hopes of hoisting silverware.

There were a couple of different potential MLS Cup Finals that sounded appealing. Portland and New York would have been a great finish, especially considering they opened the 2013 season with a 3-3 draw. Seattle and New York would have been great for TV ratings, as would have a final shared between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Red Bulls. A LA/Houston Dynamo clash – for the third year in a row – would have added even more heat to the fire, and certainly been a must-see game.

But instead, we’re going to see Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake – a final that makes sense. It’s not only a tale of the modern era in MLS, but it’s also pitting two small but loveable markets against one another. It’s putting two strong midfields toe-to-toe. And on top of that, it’s combining several storylines from throughout the season into one final match.

It’s hard to believe we didn’t see this final coming. Maybe it wasn’t fortuitous after all.

Think about Salt Lake.

Before RSL came to town, the SLC valley’s sports culture was dominated by the college football Holy War that is Brigham Young University vs. University of Utah. People split off into red for the Utes and blue for the Cougars. Gamedays when the two clash are filled with jokes and jabs between friends, brothers and acquaintances alike on who is going to win and take state bragging rights.

But Real Salt Lake – and their blue-red colors point to this – have united the culture into one. RSL is a family-friendly team that has grabbed the attention of Salt Lake’s culture. Even the very casual local sports fan has a place in their heart for RSL.

And then there’s Kansas City. It’s a market full of losing teams that rarely get time in the spotlight. The Kansas City Royals only recently sprung back into relevance in MLB. There’s no NBA or NHL team to speak of (anymore) and the only success has come from the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory in 1969 and AFL Championships in 1962, 1966 and 1969. Since then, KC hasn’t had much to sing about.

But now sing they do, decked out in myriad tones of blue. Now, Sporting KC is the talk of the town. Between the team’s league success, hosting the MLS All-Star Game and a United States Men’s National Team match, Kansas City has been lit up with nouveau-riche soccer culture. In the heartland of America lays the new beating heart of American soccer culture.

Both markets are unsuccessful on the field in other sports. But soccer has come in and not only produced winning teams, but also ignited a culture that fans stand by.

KC and SLC pack a bunch of similar players. They each have a talented USMNT work-horse general – Kyle Beckerman for RSL, Graham Zusi for SKC – and they both share very strong starting midfielders.

For every Dom Dwyer, you have a Robbie Findley (both of whom played in a form of the USL – Dwyer on loan at Orlando in USL PRO and Findley in the USL PDL for the Boulder Rapids Reserve). And while Salt Lake boasts its star playmaker Javier Morales, SKC has Benny Feilhaber, who’s been Mr. November for this round of playoffs.

RSL and SKC similarly have veteran goalkeepers with playoff experience. Jimmy Nielsen, 2012’s Goalkeeper of the Year, matches up well with Nick Rimando, 2009 MLS Cup MVP and candidate for 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year. Both have saved their teams on multiple occasions.

Even their coaches share something in common. Both RSL manager Jason Kreis and SKC manager Peter Vermes are MLS players-turned-coaches, and each played for the team they now coach.

And not only do RSL and SKC share easy three-letter monikers, the most recognizable ones in the league, but they’ve also got that European flavor – Real and Sporting.

Dwyer, who was sent on loan to Orlando City in the USL, went on a scoring tear in the Sunshine State, only to return to MLS and find success as well. He’s been a running story all season, and one that will find its way to the year’s climax.

Sporting Park itself has been subject of discussion. The venue – originally named Livestrong Sporting Park after Lance Armstrong – dropped its Livestrong ties after a scandal with the famous cyclist. It later hosted the MLS All-Star Game and was highly touted for its fans joining together to sing the national anthem following a stadium audio failure.

Even Zusi has been a continuing storyline all year. From his success in a USMNT jersey to his saving of Mexico in September, Zusi’s popularity has risen among casual fans and hardcore ones alike. And throughout it all, he’s been with Sporting KC.

And the story of RSL has been one for the history books. Many fans, media and staff at the outset deemed 2013 simply a rebuilding year after the departures of Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola and younger players filling their spots. RSL was predicted to take its time, lick its wounds and come back in 2014 with a more realistic shot.

Instead, Salt Lake had an impressive overall season. They started off hot, stayed solid during the dog days and did enough in the playoffs to secure a berth. Throughout the season, they dipped low, and never took that next step to being as successful and as widely praised as Caleb Porter’s reorganized Portland side. RSL’s greatest folly came in the U.S. Open Cup Final against D.C. United, when it lost 1-0 to the worst MLS team in history.

When you consider all the stories of the year – the losses, the wins, the tournaments, the hot streaks, the best players – it’s hard not to look back and see this final coming. SKC and RSL were two teams poised to meet again, especially after that infamous 2-1 win by SKC in Sandy, Utah, when stoppage time went well beyond the minimum declared and enraged fans across the Salt Lake valley.

This is the final that makes the most sense, and it’s one we all as fans of MLS hope will entertain and encapsulate this growing league and its dual soccer nations.


UMass Amherst
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FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.