Armchair Analyst: Three things we learned about Sporting KC, the Walking Dead and the MLS Cup final
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Fifteen minutes before Lovel Palmer rocketed his penalty kick off the underside of the crossbar, Sporting Kansas City's Jimmy Nielsen looked more like a statue than a professional goalkeeper with arms and legs and muscles and, you know, a full, human-sized amount of blood. He looked frozen, unable to move, and Twitter was awash in jokes at the big Dane's expense.
If this goes to Penalties they may have to use Tifo ropes and go the "Weekend at Bernie's" route with Nielsen. #MLSCup
— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) December 7, 2013
Then he saved Ned Grabavoy's penalty. And then he saved Sebastian Velasquez's. And then a few minutes after that he, and his delirious teammates, hoisted the MLS Cup trophy thanks to a 7-6 win in penalties (1-1 AET) over visiting Real Salt Lake.
It was remarkable. At some point on The Walking Dead, they will figure out how to breathe real, honest-to-goodness life back into one of the undead, and it will look like what happened with Nielsen on Saturday night.
"Undead Jimmy Nielsen vs. Nick Rimando" should have been the most lopsided PK shootout in soccer history, but it was a push. And Sporting are champs because of it.
Let's take a look at some other odds and ends from the night:
1. Sporting pin back RSL's fullbacks early
The home team carried most of the play in the first half, even though both possession and chances were relatively even. Sporting did a good job of narrowing RSL in both possession and attack, and were able to set the tone for the game.
It's obvious that you don't want to let RSL's fullbacks overlap all the way to the endline, as doing so makes them orders of magnitude more dangerous. Slightly more subtle is refusing to allow them to give support in possession, an extra, ad hoc midfield outlet that allows the other midfielders (Grabavoy and Luis Gil) to push numbers quickly into the attack.
Here are the first-half attacking touches for the RSL fullbacks:
Peter Vermes had a way of shutting that down on the rock hard surface of Sporting Park. By pushing C.J. Sapong and Graham Zusi way up the flanks, and trusting his central midfield to outplay RSL's (or at least play them even), he stunted the famed Utah passing game, limiting the options for – and impact of – Javier Morales until the game was well underway.
Jason Kreis eventually adjusted, as all good coaches do. And Vermes adjusted again. But let's give credit to the SKC boss for playing aggressive on the first toss of the dice, and deciding the tempo of the contest.
2. RSL limit the Zusi/Feilhaber combo through the middle
Zusi ended up being more busy than effective, and did his best work wide. Benny Feilhaber, who may have played himself back into the periphery of the US national team discussion over the past month, was more influential in the middle in terms fo ball circulation and chance generation, but wasn't the dominant playmaker he was against Houston and New England.
Kreis made the decision to have his backline retreat early and often, clearly willing to concede shots from distance instead of letting the Sporting playmakers pass (or dribble) their way into the box.
This is nice interplay, illustration of how good Feilhaber is on the ball and how quickly Zusi creates separation, but...
...it ends with a 24-yard one-timed shot from Paulo Nagamura. RSL were happy to live with that, as they should have been.
Sporting, of course, still have other options if you take away the middle:
That's old-school Sporting KC, a dominant aerial team that beats you to death with a thousand crosses. It was only appropriate that they eventually got the equalizer on one, especially since it was from a set piece.
3. No-look Beckerman break
This is so, so sweet:
No-look, left-footed chipped straight to the center forward's chest (bicep). Lord have mercy. Beckerman gave us the assist of the year, and saved it for the biggest stage.
(Matt Besler had to do better there, for what it's worth. If you're going to break the trap to make a play, then you have to make sure you're close enough to make that play. It's about the only foot Besler put wrong all night, and it's a measure of Beckerman's quality – and Saborio's – that he instantly punished it.)
One last little thing...
Sporting are deserved winners. They played physical in this one, which was ugly at times. But that physicality went both ways.
Watch Nat Borchers absolutely truck Dom Dwyer off the ball here:
RSL fought, and Sporting fought back, as was expected of a final. Aurelien Collin, as is his habit, fought hardest and best.
It wasn't profound, but it didn't have to be. It just had to be a moment of triumph, and the rebirth of a goalkeeper in a cold, Blue Hell.