KANSAS CITY — For as little as Kansas City and Salt Lake see each other during the MLS season, there’s very little love lost between the two teams.
A preseason match between the two this season was called 10 minutes early because of the overly physical play. Their only regular season meeting this year came in July and was little more than a brawl that saw KC leave Rio Tinto Stadium with a win.
Saturday’s MLS Cup Final, which KC won in penalty kicks, wasn’t much better.
Kansas City came out with a chip on its shoulder and immediately went to work throwing off Real Salt Lake’s rhythm. Referee Hilario Grajeda allowed the play to be very physical most of the game. Combined with the freezing temperatures and only one game for both teams in the past 27 days, this year’s MLS Cup was a hard-fought but sloppy affair.
RSL found its rhythm in the second half and Alvaro Saborio scored an early goal to quiet the KC home crowd. But Sporting KC hero Aurélien Collin skied over Chris Schuler in the 72nd minute to tie things up and both teams exchanged body blows from that point through extra time and into PKs where it came down to a 10th penalty kick.
RSL substitute Lovel Palmer appeared to beat KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen but for the fourth time on the night, the woodwork was Nielsen’s best friend and Palmer’s goal pinged off the crossbar to leave Kansas City on top 7-6 on PKs for the MLS Cup win.
Nick Rimando kept Real Salt Lake in the game with two terrific saves in the first half while RSL was finding its footing. He had less to do in the second half, but that’s when Collin beat him in the air on Kansas City’s only shot on goal in the second half. It was enough to tie things up in the 72nd minute.
Rimando’s phenomenal save on Grahm Zusi’s second half shot kept RSL in the game for a second shootout in the same number of MLS Finals appearances for RSL. Rimando was the hero of 2009 with his PK saves against Los Angeles during the MLS Cup, but it was not to be Saturday as Sporting KC’s shooters were just one better than RSL.
With two weeks to rest his players, RSL coach Jason Kreis fielded his first choice defenders, including Chris Wingert, who sat the majority of the first Western Conference game and all the second at Rio Tinto with a broken rib.
The MLS Cup is about standing toe to to with an opponent and seeing who flinches first. Wingert and Nat Borchers have been arguably MLS’ best central pairing at this and Kreis clearly expected his two big defenders to hold down the fort through a difficult KC onslaught.
Tony Beltran struggled the first half on the frozen, slick field to keep up with a very active Zusi who seemed unfazed by the conditions. Beltran’s second half was significantly better than his first, and he won more 50-50 balls against Zusi than he had in the first half.
Chris Schuler did well to hold off CJ Sapong with his size and length most of the game. He was quite good against the physical play of Collin on corner kicks, but Collin got the jump on Schuler in the 72nd minute when he headed in Kansas City’s equalizer.
Nat Borchers did well to absorb the high pressure from Sporting KC. Kansas City striker Dominic Dwyer put him under tremendous pressure all game, including a dangerous high kick in the box that left Borchers with a bloody nose, but Borchers never backed down.
Wingert wasn’t flashy but he used his veteran savvy to keep RSL’s left side battened down. Wingert was subbed out after re-injuring his shoulder in the 72nd minute to make way for Lovel Palmer.
Lovel Palmer (Sub 72nd) was very good in place of Wingert. RSL didn’t skip a beat when the Jamaican International filled in for the injured MLS vet. It was Palmer’s missed PK that put the final nail in the coffin to hand KC the trophy.
Kreis went with what’s worked all season — the diamond midfield. Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil were far too tucked in to the middle for the first half, allowing Kansas City too much space in the wings and not using their own depth to open things up in Kansas City’s side of the field.
Gil was nearly invisible during the first half. If RSL was to have a chance Saturday, Gil and Grabavoy had to show up in the second half. And he did. He was much more attack minded in the second half, and his defending in Kansas City’s half helped to nullify Kansas City’s high line of attack. Kyle Beckerman’s assist on Saborio’s goal came as a result of a won ball by Gil.
Javier Morales struggles with Kansas City’s physicality because it just throws off his rhythm. Add to that the cold, a hard and slick field and a frozen ball and the Argentine playmaker’s performance was less than he surely hoped for the MLS Cup.
Beckerman struggled to get enough quality touches in the first half, and RSL suffered from it. RSL just couldn’t find its rhythm. The second half saw Beckerman come out with excellent energy, seeming to personally put RSL on his shoulders. If MLS gave out an assist of the year award, Beckerman might have earned it with his no-look pass to Saborio in the 52nd minute that put RSL up 1-0.
Grabavoy was solid but not flashy. He struggled much of the first half to affect RSL’s attack, but played very good defense in the midfield. His miss in PKs was unexpected from the veteran.
Sebastian Velasquez (Sub 87th) was called on to fill in for Gil and was essentially like for like, adding little additional spark off the bench but maintaining similar impact offensively and defensively to Gil. Velasquez' PK was the weakest of the final shots and was easily saved by Nielsen.
Robbie Findley has been Real Salt Lake’s lucky charm lately and Kreis played him wide to take advantage of his speed up front. With two weeks rest, Kreis paired Findley up with a rested and rehabbed Saborio, who sat much of the postseason with a leg injury.
Saborio has been a question mark for everyone but Kreis with his injuries and a very good rookie performance from Devon Sandoval. If there really was much of a question from fans, Saborio answered the doubters with a beautiful goal in the 52nd minute that he created off a Beckerman assist with a perfect first touch.
Findley was RSL’s best offensive threat during the first half and he was always a threat right through the 112th minute until he was subbed out in place of Joao Plata. His 28-yard shot on goal was almost a carbon copy of his goal against KC at Rio Tinto Stadium in July, but this time Nielsen was saved by the near-side iron. Had Kreis known what was to come, he might have left Findley in to participate in the shootout. Good thing Plata is a fierce competitor.
Joao Plata (Sub 112th) was like for like replacing Findley, including his converted PK that kept RSL in it right up to the end. His PK was the finest of the final shots.
Grajeda had to know Saturday’s match would be a physical one but he appeared to be almost caught off guard. He missed two yellow cards in the first 20 minutes that should have been called on a very physical Kansas City side.
Collin was lucky not to earn a warning after a hard challenge on Findley early on. Grajeda’s first card was a yellow, shown to Wingert in the 24th minute. It was probably warranted, but perhaps not so much when the precedent already set was for a very physical game.
Collin finally drew a yellow card from Grajeda in the 34th minute when he clipped Findley again 25 yards from goal. Saborio earned a yellow card in the 44th minute for going through KC’s Benny Feilhaber just outside the KC box. The yellow was earned for sure, but Feilhaber was lucky not to be carded as well. On second look, he clearly kicked out at Saborio while on the ground to instigate the foul. The second half saw a flurry of fouls again. Too many were uncalled and the yellow cards that were drawn seemed arbitrarily given as a result.
The line judges were very good with their offside calls, including the call that brought back Saborio’s extra time goal in the waning seconds of the first overtime period.
Zusi and Sapong were extremely dangerous and Feilhaber teamed up with Zusi all game long to keep KC in control of the midfield much of the game, but it was Collin who made the difference in regular time to force extra time and eventually PKs. Zusi missed his PK, but Collin pounded his into the side netting to keep KC in the contest for the final win.
Collin was lucky to play the full game. He had three very hard challenges and ended up with only one yellow card. Kansas City lost defensive midfielder Oriol Rosell early on and suffered defensively as a result.