You’ve read about, or heard about, or watched one of us natter on about Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake for a solid six weeks now. It’s been apparent for at least three that these are the two best teams in the league – sorry San Jose, prove it at New York this weekend and we’ll think about it; New York, start defending set pieces and we’ll think about it.
And now they’ll meet on Saturday (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online), before some 20,000 screaming Charlie Parker fans at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Between the Lines: RSL's Left Channel
There are a lot of hooks to this one: Sporting and RSL are top of their respective tables; this is the earliest in the calendar year two teams at least four games over .500 have met in an MLS season (thanks to Peter Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau for that one); they have talent foreign and domestic, young and old; their managers are MLS legends, guys from the first generation of players to grace the league.
And most compellingly – for me, anyway – is they have wildly different styles.
Sporting run a high-pressure 4-3-3 system designed to step on an opponent’s throat and never, ever let them get air. They will run as hard as they can for as long as they can, determined to strip you of the ball then surge forward at pace and with numbers, an ethos that’s led them to a league-best 19 shots per game.
On the other side of the pitch RSL run a classic diamond-4 midfield in their 4-4-2. They’re designed to keep the ball, defusing any pressure with calm, cool possession. The ball has no lungs, after all – it’s the fastest thing on the pitch and it never gets tired. Make the opponent chase, even an opponent as fast and fit as Sporting, and eventually they will break.
That’s how it’s drawn up anyway, and all plans look good before a ball is kicked in anger.
Once it is kicked, however, all those shots KC take – the ones that their 5-0-0 start is built upon – could end up being the home team’s undoing.
Simply put: Lots of shots does not mean lots of goals. Sporting score once every 12 times they have a rip. For RSL, it’s once every 7.3 goes.
Between the Lines: KC Pressure
So not every shot is a good shot. Lots of them – ones from bad angles, ones taken off stride, ones when a teammate is in a better position – are just fancy ways of giving the ball back to the other team.
And if you give the ball to RSL too willingly or too often, they will pass you to death. This group has done it pretty consistently since late 2008, and are determined to get another trophy or three to show for it.
The danger is, in their pursuit of the ball and “shoot on sight” final third mentality, that Sporting often over-rotate. Yes, it can make for some free-flowing, attractive build-up as we saw on Kei Kamara’s goal in the 1-0 win over LA.
But it also leaves very wide gaps to shoot for a team that can get a handle on the game.
Any team that commits as many as seven players into the attack, including both full backs, runs that risk. Especially teams that have failed to score from farther than eight yards out this season - which is the case for KC.
Those shots are turnovers, and when your full backs and entire attack are pushed high up the pitch, there are plenty of gaps for a group skilled and disciplined enough to exploit them going the other direction.
Of the sides KC have faced this season, the closest to doing so were New England, even with 10 men. The key was Benny Feilhaber’s ability to drift deep, pick the ball up from the backline and carve diagonal passes through the Sporting midfield.
RSL will have their chances to do the same if form holds. They don’t have an individual as talented as Feilhaber, but they do have Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson, both of whom are more than adequate at switching the field of play into stride. Beckerman, in fact, leads the league in passes made into the opposing half, and completes 86 percent of them.
Chances are he'll be hitting Fabian Espindola flaring out to one of the flanks as the forward tries to draw Julio Cesar out of his territory just in front of the SKC defense. If that happens, Espindola will turn upfield to combine with Luis Gil (Javier Morales is listed as “doubtful,” and there’s zero chance he goes 90 minutes), Alvaro Saborio and Sebastian Velasquez.
If that's the way it plays out, then RSL will have something no one’s been afforded this season: Time and space to operate in front of Sporting’s goal, and enough of the ball to put real pressure on the central defensive duo of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler.
Still, it’s hard to see RSL imposing their style upon this particular game if Morales isn’t out there pulling the strings. Gil has gotten the bulk of the minutes at the point of RSL’s diamond, and while he’s given a good account, he’s not as polished on or off the ball as his mentor. Velasquez is a special talent, but few rookies are truly ready for a match of this pace and caliber. And if Espindola’s doing the bulk of playmaking, that means there’s one less forward in the box for Collin and Besler to worry about.
But enough talk for now - I'm tired of it too. Let's settle in and see if what happens on the pitch mirrors what's drawn on the chalkboard.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com