Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City's success is undeniable, how have they stayed on top of MLS?
Perusing the standings can be a chore for MLS fans. Checking to see whether your team is above or below the fateful red line, and by how much, is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of MLS fandom.
Two sets of lucky fans have had less to worry about over the past few seasons than most, though. It's relatively easy living in Salt Lake City and Kansas City, at least when it comes to being a supporter.
Sporting Kansas City haven't finished lower than second in the East since their rebrand in 2011, while Real Salt Lake have only one appearance outside the top three since 2008. That lone campaign on the brink of the playoffs also happened to end with something shiny (see right) in their hands.
With roughly a third of the 2014 season left, we can see that the duo are once again on their way to playoff spots and possibly even a Supporters’ Shield. A rematch of 2013's epic MLS Cup is a definite possibility, which made us wonder how these teams been able to stay on top in a league reknowned for its parity.
The simple answer is team continuity and unwavering belief in the system that's got them this far.
For Sporting, it’s Peter Vermes’ high-pressure 4-3-3, while RSL has been running the diamond midfield to great success under Jason Kreis and Jeff Cassar for more than five seasons.
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With the style of play set, each club sets about acquiring players that fit the way the way they want to play then slowly indoctrinate them into the system. The results aren't always immediate, but you can be patient when your core remains consistent.
Joao Plata has been a rampage in 2014, but last season he scored just four goals in 29 appearances. For SKC, Benny Feilhaber really didn’t start fulfilling his potential under Vermes until the end of the 2013 season. Lesser known players like Chris Schuler and Soony Saad took a few years to truly make an impact.
But once a player gets comfortable, they can feel secure in the knowledge that they're likely to stay for awhile. And they're likely to have club stalwarts and MLS veterans leading the way as well. The minutes logged by RSL's vets far outstrips that of any other club in MLS. They have nine players who've made more than 100 appearances with the club currently on the roster. Those players have accounted for more than 60 percent of the team’s minutes this season.
Percentage of Minutes Played by Players with 100+ Appearances w/club
As you can see, SKC isn’t too far behind with six players (second in the league) with 100 or more appearances with the club, accounting for just a shade more than 30 percent of the team’s minutes.
Of course, having those players isn’t necessary to succeed in MLS. Toronto FC (64 percent) and D.C. United (59 percent) lead the league in minutes played by players acquired before the 2014 season, and they are firmly in playoff positions in the East.
In any case, establishing a foundation then building from the bottom up has worked to perfection for two of MLS’ elite, and they'll both look to continue that success this weekend with big conference battles. SKC host D.C. on Saturday night (8:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) in a game that could ultimately decide who finishes atop the Eastern Conference, and RSL face off against a scorching-hot FC Dallas squad that hasn't lost in nine games on Friday evening (9 pm ET, NBCSN in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).