Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have been two of the most consistent teams in the league over the past several years, despite being in two of the smallest markets and boasting salary budgets generally reflecting as much. That in and of itself is a big story.
But it's worth digging deeper, going back further and trying to figure out how, as other contenders have come and gone, Sporting and RSL have stayed in the mix.
It starts with the two coaches, the guys on the sideline who will be calling the shots this coming Saturday as the teams contest the 18th MLS Cup. The Jason Kreis era for RSL began way back in 2007, and he led them to their first (and at this point, only) piece of hardware with the 2009 MLS Cup.
Peter Vermes took over as manager for Sporting in the middle of 2009, after two-and-a-half years as the technical director. Like Kreis, it took but a couple of seasons for him to claim his first major honor as manager - the 2012 US Open Cup - and like Kreis, he's looking for a second piece to add to the trophy cabinet.
We at MLSsoccer.com have covered these teams extensively over the years. So we dug back into the archives, found some of the most enlightening pieces and collected them here, in chronological order, for your perusal:
The Claret-and-Cobalt have made the playoffs in each of Kreis' six full seasons as boss. Before that, though, it wasn't smooth sailing - in fact, the Utah franchise was constantly taking on water. A record number of losses, an owner threatening to sell, and a star player thrust into a new role... it could have been a disaster. But Kreis, drawing on years of snubs and a "maniacal obsession with hard work" proved a natural for the job.
Months before the opening of Sporting Park, which will host this year's MLS Cup, and days after a second consecutive season without a playoff spot, Vermes isn't worried. Instead, he's trusting his own instincts, his vision, and the hard work of his staff as they all try to make certain the start of the "Sporting" era is better than the end of the "Wizards" years.
Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had no idea what he was getting into when Vermes called him before the 2010 season. Replace a legend? Change his game? Guide the league's youngest defense? It was all on the plate for the well-traveled Dane who had been considering retirement. He kept that plate full, almost instantly became a hero to the local fans, and is now 90 minutes from an MLS Cup.
Last year was the fifth straight time RSL had qualified for the playoffs, and with an aging core -- one that both Kreis and Garth Lagerwey said would be at least partially broken up in the offseason -- this was the last ride for a gang that had been together through pretty much everything.
Can the league's most physical team afford to add a bit of style? And can a kid from La Masia, FC Barcelona's famous youth academy, adjust to heartland America? Uri Rosell has ticked every box in his first season as a full-time starter, and as 2013 has gone on, it's become clear that midfield rhythm and impressive wins go hand-in-hand for KC.
“You’ve got to have faith that you’ve identified good players and that, over time, those players will emerge and they’ll learn how to play together,” RSL GM Garth Lagerwey said to our own Jonah Freedman back in preseason. Lagerwey was at the helm of a retooling that, as it turns out, will be the blueprint for smart MLS clubs for years to come.
Matt Besler was not a superstar. He was not a can't-miss kid in high school, or college, or when he first arrived on the scene in MLS. He was just a kid from the City of Fountains who was thrilled to play for his hometown team. Now? Now he's a starter with the USMNT, the face of the league's most dominant defense, and a hero to fans on both sides of the Missouri River.
No team since the Revs of the mid-2000s has had as many "almosts" as Real Salt Lake. Whether it's coming up just short in a home playoff match, or seeing a Champions League title slip away, or, most recently, finding a way to squander a US Open Cup, this team's biggest moments since that 2009 MLS Cup win have been spent watching someone else celebrate. And everyone involved -- from veterans in their last years to kids who've barely started their pro career -- is tired of exactly that.