Kansas City, Kan. • It started to settle into the back of Ned Grabavoy’s consciousness when he took his seat on the flight to Kansas City on Thursday; a different feel from one he’s familiar with, but one he’ll never tire of.
A championship, a league title, another opportunity for Real Salt Lake to win the crown jewel of Major League Soccer. Several story lines have been exhausted in the two weeks leading into Saturday’s MLS Cup final at Sporting Park against Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City:
Distinguishing paths for each franchise to reach the MLS elite.
It’s now time to let the talk of the 2013 MLS season be punctuated by a bitter-cold final in the heartland of America on Saturday afternoon, a sentiment shared by Grabavoy, one of RSL’s several established players.
“I think if you ask any of the players, they’d go anywhere in the world to play any team with a chance to win a championship,” the RSL midfielder said. “We have that tomorrow.”
Following a 56-point regular season and back-to-back Western Conference postseason triumphs over L.A. and Portland, RSL faces the East’s best, a team constructed by former KC player Peter Vermes, one that features an elaborate mix of power, speed and ability.
“If we’re going to win this Cup, we’re going to have to beat a very, very good team in Kansas City as well,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said. “I can’t say that it would have been any tougher of a road to the MLS Cup, but that’s the way we like it.”
Like RSL, Sporting features an attack not necessarily spearhead by a singular star, but several contributors get in on the mix. Needing to be mindful of Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber, Soony Saad and C.J. Sapong, fullback Tony Beltran said he’s noticed how well Sporting puts pressure on the defense when given a sliver of opportunity.
“They’ve got a lot of attacking prowess, for sure, and let’s be honest, they’re very dangerous on set pieces,” he said. “Stuff seems to bounce in their favor and they seem to make goals out of nowhere. We have to be very cognizant of that.”
But predictably, some expect a tightly played final, especially in the early going. Each side hopes to establish its brand while simultaneously avoiding an error that quickly puts them down and searching for an equalizer.
“It’s going to be a bit of a chess match,” Grabavoy said, “but I think that we need to get on the ball, possess the ball, get comfortable and look to create chances off of our possession.”
Vermes, who again discounted the notion of contradicting styles of play and approaches to the sport, said he’s focused on RSL’s spine. Naming Nick Rimando, Nat Borchers, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio, Vermes said those players specifically are ones Sporting must be wary of throughout the final.
“It definitely won’t be an easy challenge at all,” he said.
After two weeks to sit back and wait for another challenge, anticipating that walk out from underneath Sporting Park, RSL and Sporting KC finally can put the lingering narratives to rest by kicking off on a frigid Saturday afternoon.
“Any time you play a match like this, you can talk about all the tactics that you want to,” Kreis said, “but it takes players to make plays.”
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MLS Cup final
O Real Salt Lake at Sporting Kansas City
At Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Kickoff • Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • ESPN, UniMas. Radio • 700 AM, 102.3 FM
Last meeting • Sporting Kansas City 2, Real Salt Lake 1 (July 20))
Weather forecast • 22 degrees and mostly sunny at 3 p.m. CST.
About RSL • The No. 2 seed out of the Western Conference, RSL defeated the L.A. Galaxy and top-seeded Portland Timbers to advance to Saturday’s MLS Cup final. ... RSL is 5-8-3 all time against SKC, with a 1-5-2 record at Kansas City. ... The only previous matchup between the two teams this season was a 2-1 SKC win at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 20, a match in which RSL was without Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborio due to international duty. ... Saborio and defender Chris Wingert are likely to take the field after missing four weeks with respective injuries, while rookie Devon Sandoval is questionable with a foot injury. ... Having Saborio, RSL’s leading scorer, back on the field could be necessary against a SKC team that has talented center backs. ... If the match is tied after 90 minutes, it will be taken into two 15-minute extra-time periods; if the match remains tied after 120 minutes, it will be decided by penalty kicks.
About SKC • The No. 2 seed out of the Eastern Conference, Sporting Kansas City defeated the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo to advance to Saturday’s MLS Cup final. ... SKC finished with 58 regular-season points, one point behind the Supporters’ Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls. ... SKC tied with the Red Bulls for most regular-season wins in 2013 with 17. ... SKC allowed 30 goals in 34 matches this season due to a talented back line featuring Aurelien Collin and emerging U.S. star Matt Besler.