Discussion: Who will win the MLS Cup?

Jamie Squire

It sure as hell won't be the Whitecaps, but let's move past that

Are your wounds healed? Have you brushed aside the Whitecaps 2013 collapse, or do you still wake up hearing the screams of Whitecaps fans in your head, Clarice? Well, the playoffs moved on without Vancouver, and two very good teams will soon battle it out for the ultimate MLS glory.

We here at eightysixforever desperately wish we weren't bridesmaids yet again, but have decided to weigh in with our two cents. On the plus side, we're getting a very nice collection of bouquets.

MARK DAILEY

It sure seems like a long, long time since the season kicked off at the beginning of March, but after an eventful year of ups and downs (for Whitecaps fans at any rate) Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City will face each other to decide this year's winner of MLS Cup.

These two teams faced each other only once this season back at the end of July in what was at the time a showdown between the first place teams from the Western and Eastern Conferences.  Indeed, it was Real who opened the scoring through Robbie Findlay just after the break when SKC ‘keeper Jimmy Neilsen mishandled a ball in the box.  Soon thereafter RSL were on their heels when Chris Wingert was sent off after earning a second yellow card.  Sporting made the most of their advantage and scored almost immediately to draw level.  RSL fought hard to save a point, but Ike Opara plunged a dagger into the collective Claret and Cobalt heart by scoring deep in second half stoppage time to give Sporting a 2-1 victory over Real. This has the potential to be quite the interesting final.

Both of these teams matched up well against each other and Real was unlucky not to salvage any points on that occasion.  RSL certainly put an abrupt halt to the Portland Timbers playoffs when they beat them 5-2 (agg.) in the Western Conference playoffs.  Likewise, Sporting were no pushovers either when they beat the Houston Dynamo 2-1 at home of the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to the Cup match.  Who will triumph on what could be a chilly night in Kansas City?

Based on the result of their earlier meeting it could go either way, but based that they're playing the match at their home ground I predict that Sporting Kansas City will win this year's MLS Cup by a score of 3-2.

Players to watch

Sporting Kansas City: Graham Zusi

Real Salt Lake: Alvaro Saborio

ROB SCOTT

And then there were just two: Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. The 2013 season's a fading memory and the playoffs are done and dusted, so now all that's left is the MLS Cup Final on December 7, in a championship match featuring - what are the odds? - the Sunflower State drawing the Beehive State.

The similarities between the Eastern and Western Conference representatives are several: a 17-10-7 record versus a 16-10-8; both finished as runners up in their respective conferences; both edged out of top spot by a single point; and both having to come from behind on aggregate heading into the second leg of their conference semi-final matches.

But there is a key indicator that highlights a significant difference. While RSL gave up a fairly respectable 41 goals, SKC gave up a league low of just 30. At first blush, you'd think Kansas City were better defensively. But factor in the unbalanced schedule, where Eastern Conference teams play 25 matches against offensively anemic eastern foes, and suddenly things start to look a little different. Looking a little deeper, and comparing RSL's Nick Rimando against SKC's Jimmy Nielsen, we see a 73% save percentage and 68% save percentage respectively.

In short, there's much truth behind the longstanding sports wisdom which holds that while goal scoring puts fans in the seats, it's defence that wins championships. On that score, RSL gets the nod. They also get the nod in terms of recent form - having reached the final via a much more difficult route than SKC. Real Salt Lake's path has gone through Los Angeles and Portland, while SKC have faced New England and a decidedly average Houston Dynamo side.

Sporting Kansas City is by no means a pushover, and will, of course, enjoy the huge benefit of homefield advantage for the final. Still, my money's on RSL to hoist the Cup. Predicted score: RSL 2, SKC 1 in a reversal of the July 20 match, which saw Sporting win by the same score on the strength of Ike Opara's 97' header against a 10-man RSL side.

Breakout Player: Javier Morales

Morales is having perhaps his best season since he joined Major League Soccer in 2007. He's RSL's second-highest goal scorer (8), behind only Saborio (12), and leads the club in assists with 10. The Argentine also leads the team in game-winners with 4 this season.

He's the kind of CAM that the Whitecaps have been unable to find since they dealt Davide Chiumiento to FC Zurich in July 2012.

In three matches against the Caps this season, Morales posted a goal and an assist. Morales works very well with Joao Plata (F). The diminutive Ecuadorian typically comes on as a late sub for RSL, as his quick, darting style tears tired fullbacks apart. If Plata does see the pitch, look for him and Morales to combine.

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