Quest for the Shield: SKC and RSL head-to-head
Getty Images

Quest for the Shield: SKC vs. RSL head-to-head

Sporting KC   Real Salt Lake
The "White Puma" Jimmy Nielsen has not been called into action much in 2012 (Sporting have put together a record streak of minutes without allowing a shot on goal). Tough to gauge the Dane's form heading into the big match. Advantage to:
Nick Rimando hasn't enjoyed his best start to an MLS season, with his decisive error against Chivas USA costing RSL their only defeat thus far. But his quickness and ability to react to defensive breakdowns make the difference here.
The starting back four of Chance Myers, Aurélien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic are tenacious, physical and intimidating. But they're just as influential on offense with Myers and Sinovic forming arguably the best attacking fullback tandem in MLS. Besler can also serve a sweet ball out of the back with his left foot. This gives SKC the edge. Advantage to:
Tony Beltran, Jámison Olave, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert are an established defensive unit and are rarely exposed. Backup central defender Chris Schuler can be a starter on most MLS teams. This group's organization will be critical against an SKC side that will attack from every direction.
Sporting are utterly dependent on the work rate and production of Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi in their three-man midfield. Júlio César will have his work cut out tracking RSL's energetic attacking mid Luis Gil. Advantage to:
RSL are deeper than Sporting in this department even if Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy are listed as doubtful for the contest. Captain Kyle Beckerman and Will Johnson rarely put a foot wrong and Sebastian Velasquez, Luis Gil, Yordany Álvarez and Jonny Steele have already proven they can influence a match.
SKC's three-man forward line of Bobby Convey, C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara are a handful. Whether it's passing, crossing, off-the-ball runs or headers, they can do it all. And even Convey has become infected by the hard-working forward corps. With Teal Bunbury off the bench, Sporting are a force up top. Advantage to:
Fabián Espíndola and Álvaro Saborío are a formidable strike pairing. The Argentine's runs into space and the Costa Rican's ability to hold the ball up make them standouts at their position, but it's their work rate that really sets them apart. Paulo Jr. brings the unpredictable element and a whole lot of energy off the bench.
Peter Vermes has had the good fortune of being able to keep the same starting XI for five straight matches save for the occasional C.J. Sapong-Teal Bunbury swap at center forward. SKC will also be playing their fourth match of six at home to start 2012. It's the ideal start for a team that's running on automatic. But after the starters, do SKC have a bench that can contribute? Advantage to:
Jason Kreis had a lot more work to do to get RSL in its 5-1-0 position. He's had numerous starters out to injury and has shuffled his lineup constantly, including introducing new talents like Velasquez, Steele and right back Terukazu Tanaka. That ability to manage adversity thus far in 2012 puts Kreis ahead.
Bunbury is the one backup who has an argument to be a starter. After him, Jacob Peterson, Soony Saad, Michael Harrington and Paulo Nagamura figure to be next in line for sub roles, but they still have a ways to go if they want to convince Vermes they deserve a spot in the first XI. Advantage to:
Kreis already knows he can count on his subs to give his team a boost and even fill in for the regulars. Once the squad is healthy, RSL will have arguably the deepest team in the league with few areas of weakness.
SKC have an established XI that is clicking on all cylinders. The Sporting KC machine is not even operating at full efficiency and yet they continue to mow down their opponents with a playing style of power, high-pressure and speed that is difficult to stop and even harder to try to play against. Advantage to:
While RSL have dominated some matches thus far, they have also experienced periods of vulnerability: The woodwork saved them in LA vs. the Galaxy, Chivas USA beat them at home, they were minutes away from a 2-1 defeat in Portland and the expansion Montreal Impact took it to them late in the match last week. Sporting will punish them for the slightest letdown.

Stay connected: The all-new, completely redesigned, FREE official MLS app is your best mobile source for scores, news, analysis and highlights. Download:  App Store  |  Google Play