Sporting vs. Real: An MLS Clasico?
It might not be Real Madrid and Barcelona, but for Major League Soccer it's a close comparison - not just in style, but in results. Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City might come from the MLS hinterlands, but their success has put them in the spotlight, front and center.
It's no coincidence that these two powerhouses are located in some of the smallest MLS markets. There were no rushes for a quick fix and both Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis and his Sporting Kansas City counterpart, Peter Vermes, had time to transfer their ideas from paper to grass.
Obviously there is no Messi or Ronaldo. There's not even a Xavi or a Xabi. However, both Kreis and Vermes have identified, acquired and positioned talented players in productive positions. And this Saturday’s tilt at the still gleaming new Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City promises to be a super exhibit of the league's two best teams this season.
Ever since Kreis took over Real Salt Lake there have been comparisons to the Barcelona style. To many European purists, that might sound like blasphemy, but Kreis's ability to develop a squad that believes in his system based on ball possession mimics many of the key pieces of the blaugrana game-plan. Pieces can be moved or exchanged, but the clockwork still ticks.
While Vermes wishes he had the deep pockets available to Jose Mourinho, Sporting does have some similarities to Real Madrid. It might be the best start in Sporting KC's 17-year history, but it's the natural progression of their coach's master plan. While KC shares Kreis's high pressure defensive philosophy, they differ once the ball is won. Once Sporting gets possession, the object is to immediately put the opposition under assault.
Both teams use veteran goalkeepers in Nick Rimando and Jimmy Nielsen. Both have the ability of making the spectacular stop. That allows the ten men in front of them to be more confident pushing forward.
Sporting's back line tends towards the athletic with Chance Myers and Matt Besler. The pickup of Seth Sinovic gives Vermes a wily wingback on the left with the ability to cross and French veteran Aurelien Collin is the glue that keeps it all together.
For RSL, Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert both have the ability to push forward but have proven themselves defensively. While Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave both look like bruisers, another strength is their ability to play the ball out of the back. Just as with Barcelona, RSL does not like to give the ball away cheaply.
Kyle Beckerman might be the most polemic player in MLS. You either think he's the best, or the most over-rated defensive midfielder in US soccer. Luckily for him, Kreis and USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann are in his corner. Beckerman's not the quickest, but his positioning is solid and his composure under pressure is key to the RSL system. His ability to direct the ball from back to front is unmatched in MLS.
For SKC, Julio Cesar has found a home at defensive midfielder by default. Vermes tried to play him in central defense to some disastrous results. However, his experience and ability comes in handy in the midfield with Collin able to provide cover behind him.
Vermes differs from Kreis in the use of his other midfielders. Graham Zusi has developed from a holding midfielder into a bona fide creator. Roger Espinoza started as a speedy if reckless left back, but since he proved his worth in the midfield of the Honduras national team, Vermes has given him free rein. While he is still a fearsome tackler, Espinoza has polished many of the rough edges off his game, and has shown he still has not reached his peak.
Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy provide the Salt Lake attack its rhythm. Building off the bass line provided by Beckerman, Morales and Grabavoy create a mesmerizing weave to the RSL attack. And while both are in question for this weekend, youngsters Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez have been outstanding when called upon this season. Veteran Canadian international Will Johnson can also step in nicely when needed.
It's in the front line where RSL differs from its Barcelona mindset the most. However, that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. Alvaro Saborio is serving as a proto-typical center forward with Fabian Espindola wreaking havoc down the flanks. The development of Paulo Junior in the off-season has allowed him to provide some guile to the physical skills of his fellow forwards.
Kansas City seemed to have an overload of forwards, so Kei Kamara was moved to the right wing where he has blossomed. His creativity causes problems when the ball is on his side. And Kamara's athletic ability on back post runs makes him dangerous when the ball's on the other flank. C.J. Sapong seems to have beaten out Teal Bunbury for a starting spot in the middle, at least for the moment. Sapong provides a physical presence like Saborio, but at a faster beat.
That's the biggest difference between these two quality sides. Real Salt Lake is soccer in a bossa nova rhythm, swaying hypnotically and drawing you into its pattern. Sporting Kansas City is like a soccer version of thrash metal, full of vigor and fury and making you grab your armrests to hold on for the ride. Perhaps more like an MLS version of Borussia Dortmund than Real Madrid, but a clear, well-defined and successful style nonetheless.
In my mind, if all things are clicking for both teams, Real Salt Lake has the class and big-game experience to eek out a win, but if they show the slightest weakness, Sporting Kansas City has a lethal ability to make them pay. The fact that RSL is not at full strength and the game is in Kansas City gives the host the edge, but barely.
There might be similarities to the two Spanish giants, but what matters is that both Sporting and Real are playing like the giants of MLS. If you're anywhere near a television on Saturday, this match promises to be must-watch entertainment.
Are Sporting KC and RSL the two best teams in MLS? Share your thoughts with a comment below, or tweet me @PhilSchoen.