Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake were the No. 2 seeds in their respective conferences, but it is tough to argue that they weren't the two best teams. They had the pedigree, the star power and the all-important strength up the middle, a combination that has landed the two in MLS Cup, 90 minutes away from being crowned the league's best.
Both teams were afterthoughts for much of the mid-2000's, with expansion doing Salt Lake in, while losing and a miniscule fan base led to Kansas City's insignificance. But both teams overhauled their clubs, from the front offices to the managers to new stadiums. With it all came wins, stability and MLS prominence.
Now Sporting and RSL meet as two of the league's premier clubs. Sporting have not won a MLS Cup since 2000, but they did win the U.S. Open Cup a year ago so they are not too far removed from silverware. RSL captured MLS' ultimate prize just four years ago. The question now is who will earn a second MLS Cup trophy to add to their mantle.
1. Is Peter Vermes good enough? Sporting had arguably the best roster in MLS in 2011 and 2012, but in both years, they fell to the Houston Dynamo in the playoffs as Peter Vermes was badly outcoached by Dominic Kinnear. Those failings raised questions about Vermes. While he did finally get past Kinnear this year, he had a much more talented team and Houston lost Ricardo Clark to injury. Now Vermes has to face another elite manager, one that has a healthy roster almost equal to his. It's time to find out if Vermes is a good enough manager to punch with the league's best.
2. Who wins the set pieces battle? No team was whistled for more fouls in the regular season than Sporting and they have kept that up in the postseason, once again leading in fouls conceded. That could prove deadly against RSL, who have Javier Morales to take set pieces. The Argentine is excellent on dead balls and has Chris Schuler, Nat Borchers and Alvaro Saborio to hit them to, which makes every Kansas City foul in their own third a goal scoring opportunity for Salt Lake. But just like Sporting gives away set piece chances, they also take advantage of the ones they have. With their anemic front line, they need to get goals on set pieces and that is exactly what they do with Aurelien Collin leading the way.
3. How influential will Benny Feilhaber be? For all of his considerable talent, Benny Feilhaber has never made much of an impact at the club level. Even when he was playing a key role for the United States in the lead up to and during the 2010 World Cup, he couldn't replicate that form in the Bundesliga, Premier League, Superliga or Major League Soccer. But the playoffs have been a revelation for the midfielder. In the second legs of the conference semifinal and Eastern Conference final, he was sensational. Sporting KC will need him to be that good to break down RSL. It may have taken an injury to Lawrence Olum to get Feilhaber on the field, but his vision and skill could earn Sporting MLS Cup.
4. Who will win the wings? Neither Sporting nor RSL use the wings much through the midfield, with Kansas City opting for a 4-3-3 with three outright central midfielders and Salt Lake in their well-drilled diamond midfield. That leaves both very dependent on their fullbacks. Sporting leans most heavily on Chance Myers down the right, especially when they play Graham Zusi, who likes to come inside, on that flank, while RSL has Tony Beltran on their right. The kicker in this match may be Chris Wingert, who is making a comeback from injury and could tilt the flanks in Salt Lake's direction if he is fit enough to play well.
5. How much is home-field worth? Sporting earned home-field in MLS Cup by finishing two points better than RSL in the regular season, although Salt Lake would argue that playing in the superior Western Conference with an unbalanced schedule made their record more impressive than Kansas City's. But MLS cares not for the unfairness of their schedule and Sporting will get to play for the league's top prize in front of 18,000 of their most rabid fans as a result. Still, Sporting haven't been especially good at home this season, losing an astonishing five times. The forecast is calling for frigid weather, but that isn't much of an advantage against Salt Lake so will Kansas City's crowd make the difference in a way it hasn't in the regular season?