KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A month ago when Real Salt Lake opened the playoffs at Los Angeles, it approached the match with a very conservative, defensive posture and was incredibly lucky to only lose 1-0. On a different night, the Galaxy could've scored three or four goals and won the series in the first leg.
In RSL's three playoffs games since, the club has wisely reverted back to its aggressive, attack-first mentality, and the results have followed suit with three straight victories and a 7-2 goal differential.
Heading into Saturday’s MLS Cup at Sporting Park, affectionately referred to as Blue Hell, Real Salt Lake knows from experience it can’t afford to sit back.
“For me it seems like the players are more relaxed and enjoying the moment and playing more free, which is when we’re at our best,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy.
When Real Salt Lake is on top of its game, it’s pinging the ball around the midfield and the opponent is doing a lot of chasing.
That’s how Kansas City likes to play at home too, and Saturday’s championship is all about which side can impose its will on the other — not to mention push aside the misery mother nature has in store with forecasted temperatures in the teens.
“One thing that will be important for them playing here is to try and possess the ball a little bit because typically we outpossess our opponents at home, and they’re known to be a possession team,” said Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber. “If they’re able to possess the ball a little bit, that will help them and obviously our goal is not let them do that.”
Fellow Kansas City midfielder Paulo Nagamura said making life difficult for RSL midfielder Javier Morales is the key to slowing down Real Salt Lake.
“They’re a very creative team, especially with Morales. He’s a guy that we always have to keep an eye on him and don’t let him create much. He’s the most dangerous guy on that team. If you give him an inch or so he’ll make you pay,” said Nagamura.
Kansas City beat Real Salt Lake 2-1 in the only regular-season meeting between the teams at Rio Tinto Stadium back in June, and the visitors had success by frustrating Morales.
RSL was missing four regulars — Alvaro Saborio, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran — because of international duty, but Jason Kreis’ team could be at full strength for Saturday’s 2 p.m. MST kickoff on ESPN.
Saborio and Chris Wingert were the only two RSL regulars who missed Game 2 of the Western Conference final against Portland, but they’ve trained all week and are available.
“I’m good to go, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m in the lineup or the 18, but I’ll be looking to help the team in any capacity I can,” said Wingert.
The return of leading-scorer Saborio to the attack could be a boost as well, especially if he’s paired with Robbie Findley. Even though players like Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia might bring a bit more flare to the match, RSL has only lost one match this season (3-1-5) when Findley and Saborio are in the starting lineup together.
Saborio and Findley can only be successful if the nine guys behind them do their job, and Wingert said he’s looking forward to the challenge of trying to do that on the biggest of MLS stages.
“We’re going to try and do our best to impose our will on them. Obviously we like to possess the ball and try and take it to the other team and press them a little bit — even though of course they’re going to have the crowd behind them and they’re going to be trying to put us back into our end,” said Wingert. “If we’re capable of doing that like the team did last week we’ll be in good shape.”
Both franchises have hoisted MLS hardware before, most recently with Real Salt Lake in 2009. Kansas City's last title came in 2000, a drought home-field advantage could play a big role in ending Saturday.
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