SANDY — It’s the "what if?" that Real Salt Lake midfielder Sebastian Velasquez has played over and over in his head. What if he’d just kicked the ball to his left instead of the right?
Jimmy Nielsen would’ve guessed the wrong way, Velasquez’s shot in the seventh round of the MLS Cup shootout would’ve been a goal, and Real Salt Lake would’ve celebrated its second league title in five years.
Instead, Nielsen guessed correctly to save Velasquez’s penalty, and three rounds later Lovel Palmer famously hit the crossbar in agonizing fashion.
“You’re always going to have that game in the back of your mind,” said Velasquez.
Memories of the missed opportunity will come flooding back Saturday when Real Salt Lake makes its return visit to Kansas City — and not only for Velasquez, but for his teammates and the entire Real Salt Lake community as well.
Saturday’s MLS Cup rematch (6:30 p.m., Ch. 4) is a moment RSL defender Nat Borchers has been anxiously awaiting the past four months.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to play these guys. I’ve been thinking about them all offseason. They’re a great team, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” said Borchers.
For all the hype surrounding the title game replay, new RSL coach Jeff Cassar is trying to keep the match in perspective.
“We’re not going to win the MLS Cup on Saturday," he said.
In fact, despite all the hype, midfielder Ned Grabavoy is trying to approach it like any of the other 33 regular-season games this season
“I don’t think our team looks at it and says it’s a matchup from last year’s MLS Cup. I know that it is and that’s going to be the story, but it’s just a different game,” he said. “It’s another game for us to go on the road. We’ve done pretty well on the road so far, and I think sometimes we welcome a hostile environment, and they certainly have that.”
Sporting Park, or “Blue Hell” as it’s affectionately called, is one of the most difficult places to play in MLS.
Thankfully for both teams — and the fans — kickoff temperatures on Saturday are forecast in the mid 50s, nearly 40 degrees warmer than last year’s MLS Cup.
“Getting bashed in the face in 12-degree weather isn’t fun,” said Borchers, who joked that the reason he’s still growing his playoff beard from last year is for added cushion when getting kicked in the face.
Both of last year’s MLS Cup finalists are off to strong starts. Real Salt Lake sits in second place in the Western Conference, unbeaten through four matches (2-0-2), while Kansas City occupies the second spot in the East with a 2-1-1 record.
While RSL is coming off a 3-0 thrashing of Toronto FC last weekend, Kansas City came from a goal down to win at Colorado, 3-2.
“I watched the end of the Colorado-Kansas City game and what struck me the most was how they keep fighting. They didn’t give up ‘til that last goal and they got the game-winner, and that’s what good teams do,” said Borchers.
RSL has one victory in eight tries in Kansas City, that result coming back at Community America Ballpark in 2009. RSL's depth will need to come through if it hopes to end that four-year drought.
Defender Chris Wingert is very doubtful with the groin injury he picked up last weekend, with Rich Balchan likely sliding into the starting role after replacing Wingert in the 58th minute against Toronto FC. Balchan didn’t play in a single game last season because of a dislocated shoulder.
With Joao Plata and Robbie Findley still on the mend, Olmes Garcia will likely make his second straight start alongside Alvaro Saborio at striker.
Even though it’s only April and there are 30 games remaining in the regular season, Sporting Kansas City’s win at Rio Tinto Stadium last summer — no matter how controversial to RSL — helped it earn the right to host MLS Cup last December.
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