Kansas City, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of clubs each looking for their second-ever championship will square off in Major League Soccer's finale on Saturday when Sporting Kansas City hosts Real Salt Lake in the 18th edition of MLS Cup at Sporting Park.
Sporting will make its third-ever appearance in MLS's showpiece event. They won the title in 2000 after earning a a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. They were losing finalists in MLS Cup 2004, falling 3-2 to D.C. United at The Home Depot Center in Carson, CA.
After a 17-win regular season which saw SKC earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference, Sporting earned a 4-3 aggregate victory over the New England Revolution in the semifinals before vanquishing some demons in the conference final round by topping the Houston Dynamo.
RSL knocked off the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the semifinals and earned a 5-2 win over the Portland Timbers in the conference finals.
Sporting's eight-year gap between finals appearances is the fourth-longest drought in league history. The longest for any club making a return trip to the MLS title game was the Colorado Rapids, ending a 12-season drought with MLS Cup 2010.
The hosts could suffer a bit from lack of experience on such a big stage as just one member of the current SKC team has played in an MLS Cup final. Midfielder Paulo Nagamura played the entirety of MLS Cup 2005 with the LA Galaxy, a 1-0 win against New England.
Real Salt Lake have reached MLS Cup for a second time, winning in their only previous appearance, defeating the LA Galaxy in a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw in MLS Cup 2009 in Seattle.
While Sporting has just one player with MLS Cup final experience, seven current members of Real Salt Lake were in the squad for MLS Cup 2009, and six were in the first XI that day.
Nick Rimando started between the posts, Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert started in the back four, Robbie Findley started in attack and Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales were in the midfield, though Morales' day ended after just 22 minutes because of injury. Tony Beltran was an unused substitute.
Positionally, both clubs boast an impressive stable of striking options. Real Salt Lake tallied a league-high 57 goals this season, while Sporting Kansas City fired home 47.
Sporting employs the attack-minded 4-3-3 formation with C.J. Sapong, Dominic Dwyer and Jacob Peterson leading the line, while RSL gets it done with sheer quality on the ball. Costa Rica native Alvaro Saborio is the best forward on the pitch for either club.
Dwyer has already won a championship this year, leading Orlando City SC to a 7-4 victory against Charlotte, while on loan, in the USL PRO title game on Sept. 7. Dwyer scored 4 goals in the title game after setting the league's single-season scoring record with 15 goals in 13 matches. Dwyer has scored 26 goals this season across six competitions: the USL PRO regular season, USL PRO title game, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, MLS and the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"I had to come back to KC and finish this season off right," Dwyer said. "So it was nice to see all of them happy, and there was a big buzz around here two weekends ago when we beat Houston. It was really nice, and I'm looking forward to more of that feeling. It was good to have that opportunity in that first game, in the final in Orlando. It's nice to get another one. Obviously, this is a bigger stage now. I'm really looking forward to it."
Saborio's had trouble with injuries this season, but is deadly when healthy as he bagged 12 goals in just 16 matches played this season. Rookie Devon Sandoval has also emerged as a reliable threat off the bench along with Olmes Garcia, while Joao Plata has thrived since leaving Toronto FC to come to Utah.
Sporting plays three in midfield, while RSL uses a diamond setup with a creative playmaker at the point, two out wide and the defensive player sitting in front of the back four.
For RSL, the diamond midfield has become a bit of a trademark with Morales pulling the strings at the point of the attack, Yordany Alvarez and Sebastian Velasquez out wide and Beckerman in front of the back four. It's a formation that can boss the center of the park.
Sporting is likely to start U.S. internationals Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber on the wings with Oriol Rosell in the middle.
"Uri's a little bit more of a connector," Sporting manager Peter Vermes said, "where Benny can push the game by just getting it right away and going, he can give the final pass, he can keep the ball for possession. So he has the ability to change the rhythm of the game."
"I think that's big for our team," Feilhaber added. "We have guys that can definitely take advantage of the space out on the wings. If we can drive at them a little bit in the middle, it makes them come narrow. Then once they come narrow, everything on the outside is available again. I think we've got to use both the inside and the outside, depending on what they give us."
Despite playing on the road in freezing conditions, RSL are comfortable away from home. Real Salt Lake are one of three teams to have won away in this year's MLS Cup Playoffs. Sporting did not win either of their road matches -- falling at New England and drawing in Houston.
"Those games when we go into Seattle, we go into Portland, we go into LA with these massive crowds and they all hate us -- we really enjoy it," RSL defender Nat Borchers said. "We just enjoy the atmosphere and enjoy kind of the challenge that it takes to get a result and quiet the fans."
Sporting have won the last two meetings between the clubs. Their victory in Utah this year was the first by a road team in the series since 2009, when the teams split their two regular season meetings, each winning on the other's home ground.