Pregame chat on the MLS Cup final

Editor’s note: After their chat about the conference final matchups, PSP contributors Eli Pearlman-Storch and Adam Cann decided to do it all again for the MLS Cup Final this upcoming Saturday. Here it is.

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Remember that time when I predicted a Houston-Portland final? Yeah, about that … Houston really lacked punch without Ricardo Clark in the midfield, and Real Salt Lake put the Timbers in a midfield-choking sleeper hold of epic proportions.

So now RSL travels to Kansas City in a match where arguably the league’s best midfield meets MLS’ best defense. What are you looking for in this one?

Adam Cann: I think the first question you have to ask with these two teams is simple: Who controls the wide areas? Is it RSL’s backs, or Kansas City’s wingers? Beckerman is going to be hawking Benny the Stache all over the field, so KC will need their wide players to find space early. Defensively, Kansas City can survive for as long as they can keep Javier Morales under wraps. Do they have the personnel and strategic planning to do it? Usually, Vermes changes his system for nobody. Morales may be a special case.

Eli: Beckerman may be the best ball hawk on the pitch, but between Ori Rosell and whoever he is paired with (Olum? Nagamura?), they’ll have two bodies looking to cut Morales off at the knees at every opportunity. I think their approach will be so singularly focused on the Argentine maestro that either Luis Gil or Ned Grabavoy will have to step to the fore and shoulder a large portion of the creative responsibility.

And they better step up, because Kansas City won’t get suckered into the middle of the pitch the way Portland did. Sporting should dominate the touchlines, while RSL eats up the middle of the field. Then we’re back to the question of who scores. Dom Dwyer may have nabbed the winner against Houston, but considering he usually can’t hit water even when he falls out of a boat, RSL should have the advantage with Robbie Findley and Devon Sandoval in confident form. Here’s a question for you, if Alvaro Saborio is healthy, does Jason Kreis rock the boat and hand him a start?

Adam: If it were me, I would only start Saborio if he is absolutely 100%. Letting him bump with Aurellien Collin is very advantageous for RSL considering the French defender’s short temper. But I’m not Jason Kreis. The RSL manager has gotten the most out of his team by recognizing and playing the hot hand, and he knows better than most what a confident striker looks like. I expect Sandoval to start but have a short leash: Maybe 50-55 minutes if RSL goes down, 65 if they are tied or ahead. If Saborio can move, he has to play a role.

Poor Peter Vermes. All these strikers and the only one he seems to trust is the energetic but inconsistent Dwyer. I don’t think that will change in the final, but I expect to see a less standard KC lineup behind Dwyer. Oddly, Kansas City has finally made it to the final while playing a less dynamic game than they have in the past. While Zusi has been good on the right, he doesn’t offer the dribbling ability of Kei Kamara, so KC has relied heavily on the cross and on Feilhaber’s ability to spread the ball around. On the surface, this plays into RSL’s hands. But in fact, the Western Conference champions gave up 11 goals off crosses, 4 off of corners and 5 off indirect free kicks. With this in mind, do you think RSL can afford to go rough on KC? Especially with Hilario “Let ’em play!” Grajeda in charge of the match?

Eli: I think they can, and will, dish out plenty of the rough stuff, especially to Zusi and Feilhaber. Most of RSL’s set piece frailties came without Chris Schuler available. Now that he’s a consistent starter next to Nat Borchers, the horrendously nicknamed “White Rhino,” RSL can put Schuler on an opponent’s most physical aerial threat — in this case Collin — and let the Rhino play center field.
You make a good point about Grajeda though, as he often allows play to continue, just for the sake of saying that he did. This should favor RSL as they will kick chunks out of the Sporting attackers in the same way they did against Diego Valeri and Co. in the Conference Finals. If Grajeda gets wind of their hack-em-up strategy and hands out a yellow card after Schuler commits 5 fouls in the first 13 minutes, advantage Sporting. But he won’t, and RSL will be allowed to kick, stomp and trample their way into the ascendancy.
Other than the push the home crowd will offer, I’m struggling to see Sporting winning this game. Is there any chance Vermes drops Zusi into midfield in order to have two focal points of the attack, with another body available in the final third to try and bury chances?
Adam: I know you will hate this, but I see similarities between Vermes and Andres Villas-Boas at Tottenham. Both seem to consider their systems more important than their personnel, and they plug-n-play until they get the players that best fit the system. While both managers have collected rosters that seem amenable to their style, they run into trouble against teams that look at the game tape, figure out how to disrupt, and assume this will result in holes opening up when KC or Tottenham get ambitious. Jason Kreis? His teams can weather attacks with the best of them.

Unlike Kansas City, RSL can play a very disciplined game. Portland found out the hard way that it is nearly impossible to impose an attacking style on your opponents all the way to the Cup. Hell, Bruce Arena has made a living by building a team on a NBA model: Grab a few superstars that maximize their opportunities, and make sure everyone else knows their role so well they can do it in their sleep.
So I think Kansas City’s only real chance is to get up early or get into a messy contest with few chances for either side. Being messy ain’t easy with Grajeda though, because if you try to stop a play with a hard foul, he just won’t have it. Do you think Kansas City can devise a pressure scheme that will force RSL to play longer than they want early, giving the home team chances to flow forward in the first half hour?
Eli: I really don’t see it. As long as Benny Feilhaber remains the moodiest player in MLS, it is hard to see him cranking up his own tempo enough to lead a fast, flying assault against RSL in the early going. If it’s not a smash and grab, or an uncharacteristic defense mistake, it is very hard to imagine that RSL won’t be comfortably into their groove by the half hour mark.
Sporting’s defense is still good enough that they could stymie RSL at the other end, leading too a cagey chess match and an extra time winner. That would likely make for a pretty unpleasant viewing experience for us neutral supporters, unfortunately.

The more we discuss it though, the more confidence I have in RSL imposing themselves onto the final until they are decidedly in the ascendancy. Then one goal late in the first half or early in the second half should be enough to set them on their way. Perhaps, they even cap off the season with an insurance goal against a stretched Kansas City attack. You buying that? Bring us home.

Adam: I agree that RSL should win the game, but I think the athleticism KC possesses can, and has, papered over a lot of their weaknesses. And in a one-off final, all it takes is that one moment of absurd athleticism to turn a game. As you’ve said, the KC defense can be strong and if they grab a lead Salt Lake is going to struggle to break out of their disciplined system and attack. I think this game will be cagey from the start, and that fits RSL. It will be up to KC to get over the jitters and find a way to play the style that suits them. I’m picking RSL, but I’m hoping KC is shot out of a cannon to start. That will give us a game worthy of a final.

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