Sandy • It’s been billed as a potential MLS Cup preview.
And when Real Salt Lake hosts Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night, it will be a matchup of divergent styles and similar paths to success.
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting Kansas CityAt Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV » CW30
Radio » 700 AM, 102.3 FM
Records » RSL 11-5-4 (37 points); Kansas City 9-5-6 (33 points)
Last meeting » SKC 1, RSL 0 (April 14, 2012)
About RSL » Sits atop the MLS table with 37 points. … Will be missing four players — Alvaro Saborio, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran — to Gold Cup call-ups. … Midfielder Javier Morales leads the team in goals (5) and assists (7). … Three of the team’s center backs are out with injury. … Third-string goalkeeper Jeff Attinella is likely to start because of call-ups and injuries.
About SKC » Claudio Bieler, a new addition this year, leads the team with nine goals. … U.S. national team member Graham Zusi provides service on set pieces and up the right side of the field. … Leads the league in shots (311). … An aggressive, high-pressure team that has committed the second-most fouls in the league (293).
Sporting’s past is one RSL supporters should be able to appreciate. Only a few years ago, Kansas City fans watched their team play in a minor league baseball park or in an empty football stadium, all the while enduring rumors of possible moves as the club looked for a new owner. Now, settled with a new manager at the state-of-the-art Sporting Park, Kansas City sits in second place behind only RSL, looking for its first MLS Cup since 2000.
"It’s the exact same thing that happened here," RSL coach Jason Kreis said, "the change in the coaching staff and sort of a new direction about what they were going to be."
On the field, the two teams are distinctly different reflections of their managers. Where RSL prefers a style of soccer reliant on keeping possession and building up the attack through multiple passes, Sporting Kansas City prefers to turn up the pressure on both sides of the ball.
But off the field, Real general manager Garth Lagerwey, a member of the 1996 Kansas City Wizards, sees plenty of similarities between his current club and his old one, whether it be the size of the market, the core of domestic players, or the struggle to find a permanent home.
Kansas City averaged fewer than 11,000 fans a game before Sporting Park in 2011. But with the opening of a new park — along with a change in name and a win over English power Manchester United in a friendly — SKC now averages north of 19,000.
"I think they’ve done an absolutely brilliant rebranding," Lagerwey said. "They really took a lot of that negative history from playing at Arrowhead — a cavernous stadium — in front of nobody, to selling the house out every game."
Since losing in the MLS Cup finals in 2004, Sporting missed out on the playoffs four of the next six seasons. But the club’s fortunes would soon turn.
Sporting’s hiring of former Wizard Peter Vermes helped usher in a return to form.
Real Salt Lake erased its dismal past with the hiring of Kreis as coach and a 2008 house-cleaning that saw two-thirds of the roster turned over. Kansas City, meanwhile, has built itself back up through the draft, where it found two future U.S. national team players in defender Matt Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi, a second-round pick out of Maryland in 2008.
"They were coming from a low point as a franchise so they got a couple high picks," Lagerwey said. "If you get a national team player from the second round, you’re doing something right."
But for all the similarities, Kreis is hopeful to see one major difference Saturday night.
"It’s a team I don’t think we have a whole lot of love lost for," he said. "And last year it’s a team that completely outplayed us at their stadium, so I’m looking to return the favor."
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