SANDY — Coming off a playoff series in which Real Salt Lake spent minimal time in the film room, coaches and players are spending considerably more time this week brushing up on Sporting Kansas City.
Real Salt Lake and Kansas City met just once this year — a stark contrast to the six meetings RSL and Western Conference final foe Portland had — and four RSL regulars missed the match because of national team duty.
The unfamiliarity between the clubs adds a unique element to their MLS Cup clash this Saturday.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was one of those four RSL players who missed Kansas City’s 2-1 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium earlier this year, along with Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran and Alvaro Saborio. Despite not playing Kansas City this season, Rimando said he’s familiar with most of its players because of past meetings and doesn’t think the unfamiliarity will be an issue.
In fact, in a small way the Portland series was perfect preparation for RSL’s date with Sporting KC.
Even though Kansas City has a reputation for being extremely physical and Portland is more of a finesse team, they play similar formations, which RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy said could help his team as it prepares for the final.
“We’ve played against this shape more so than other shapes, so we’ve trained a lot against it,” said Grabavoy. “In saying that there’s differences between Kansas City and Portland, so I don’t think we’re going to look back and say, 'This is what we did against Portland. That could work.' The focus is solely on KC and how they play because they have different players in different spots who do different things.”
One of the biggest differences between RSL’s final two opponents of 2013 is on set pieces.
“Kansas City is more physical, more of a set-piece team for sure,” said RSL defender Nat Borchers.
It’s also a very direct team, which fellow defender Beltran said presents some challenges.
“Our play is more methodical. We try and keep the ball, move it around and have a purpose for moving the ball,” Beltran said. “They’re very athletic, very dynamic team up front and they’re good at pressing opponents. A lot of times they’ll put the ball in, win second balls and play from there.”
If RSL can clog the middle and win its fair share of 50-50 balls, it should be able to limit the effectiveness of Kansas City’s midfield.
Breaking down Kansas City’s stout defense — which allowed a league-low 30 goals — will be equally as important. RSL coach Jason Kreis said it’s no secret why Sporting Kansas City has been so good defensively this season.
“For me it’s mostly about fight and willingness to do whatever it takes for each other to keep the opposing team out of the goal. They’ve been very good at it the past couple of years. They have an extremely good goalkeeper and extremely good center backs,” said Kreis.