Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake | MLS Cup Final Preview

2013 MLS Cup Final Preview

2013 MLS CUP
Sat., Dec. 7, Sporting Park, 4:00 pm ET/3:00 pm CT

A pair of clubs looking for the second Major League Soccer championship in their histories meet in MLS Cup 2013 when Sporting Kansas City play host to Real Salt Lake. Sporting have reached the MLS Cup Final for a third time, winning MLS Cup 2000, 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, Calif. 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 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Wash.

The teams met just once during the regular season, on July 20 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. RSL’s Robbie Findley (56) and SKC’s Soony Saad (67) traded goals early in the second half, the Sporting equalizer coming seconds after Real’s Chris Wingert was sent off. Seven minutes into stoppage time, Sporting’s Ike Opara headed home the game-winner on a corner kick to give his club a 2-1 victory.

In two appearances all-time at Sporting Park, Real Salt Lake have yet to score a goal. Sporting win 2-0 on Aug. 3, 2011 in their first meeting in the stadium; SKC took a 1-0 win in their last meeting in Kansas City. April 14, 2012.

Sporting will be the second team to host MLS Cup by virtue of having the best regular-season record of the two finalists. A year ago, the LA Galaxy become the fourth team to play MLS Cup on their home ground, the first to do it twice, winning both MLS Cup 2011 and MLS Cup 2012, each time against the Houston Dynamo at The Home Depot Center.

The Galaxy were also involved in a third match – winning MLS Cup 2002 on a golden goal in a 1-0 win against the New England Revolution before a crowd of 61,216 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the largest crowd to see the MLS championship game. In 1997, D.C. United defeated the Colorado Rapids 2-1 before a sellout crowd of 57,431 at RFK Memorial Stadium.

Sporting have won the last two meetings between the clubs. Their victory in Sandy 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.

Sporting Kansas City posted the best defensive record in Major League Soccer in 2013, allowing just 30 goals in 34 league matches (0.88 per game). It’s the second consecutive season SKC has led the league with the fewest goals allowed; the last team to win MLS Cup after recording the best defensive mark in the league in the regular season was the 2011 LA Galaxy.

Real Salt Lake scored 57 goals in 2013, the second-best attacking record in the regular season, just one goal less than the New York Red Bulls. When RSL won MLS Cup 2009, they were tied for the league lead that season with 43 goals scored.


Hilario Grajeda of Dayton, Ohio will be the MLS Cup referee for the first time. Named the 2013 MLS Referee of the Year, Grajeda has been an MLS referee since 2004. Grajeda was the referee for the 2013 MLS All-Star Game; he was the fourth official for MLS Cup 2012. For his 23 league matches in 2013, Grajeda whistled an average of 23.2 fouls per game, fourth-lowest in the league (among 23 referees, the league average was 24.8). He also gave out 2.7 yellows per game (league average was 3.11), and awarded 4 red cards and 3 penalty kicks.

The assistant referees are Paul Scott and Bill Dittmar. It is the first appearance for each in MLS Cup; they were the two assistants for the MLS All-Star Game. The fourth official is Ismail Elfath.


Jason Kreis became the fourth former MLS player to also win an MLS Cup as coach, guiding Real Salt Lake to their MLS Cup 2009 title. The first was Frank Yallop (Tampa Bay 1996-98); he won two MLS Cups in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes (2001, 2003). Peter Nowak (Chicago 1998-2002) led D.C. United to victory in MLS Cup 2004, and Dominic Kinnear (Colorado 1996; San Jose 1997; Tampa Bay 1998-2000) guided the Houston Dynamo to back-to-back Cup victories in 2006 and 2007. Kreis scored 108 goals, still fifth-most all-time in MLS history, in a 12-year career with Dallas (1996-2004) and Real Salt Lake (2005-07).

Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes is looking to be the second person to win MLS Cup both as a player and a head coach. Vermes was a member of the Kansas City Wizards who won MLS Cup 2000, playing the full match in central defense in the 1-0 win vs. the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium. Vermes also played the entire match in MLS Cup ’97 for the Colorado Rapids, a 2-1 loss to D.C. United, also at RFK Stadium. Vermes made 184 league appearances in a seven-year MLS career with the MetroStars (1996), Colorado (1997-99) and Kansas City (2000-02).

This is the first time two former MLS players have been the head coaches in MLS Cup. It will also be the first time a former player will be on the losing end at MLS Cup – every former player has won previously.


Sporting Kansas City have gone eight seasons since their last MLS Cup appearance. 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 Chicago Fire have the second-longest streak, at 10 years following the 2013 season; D.C. United have gone nine seasons and the San Jose Earthquakes eight seasons since their last trip to the final.

Real Salt Lake are just the second expansion team (created from an expansion draft) to reach the MLS Cup Final. The Chicago Fire played in the first of their three MLS Cups – their only victory – in their inaugural season of 1998 (a 2-0 win vs. D.C. United). Chicago also played in 2000 (a 1-0 loss to Kansas City) and 2003 (a 4-2 loss to San Jose). Miami Fusion FC, formed the same year as the Fire, did not reach the MLS Cup Final in their four-year existence. Chivas USA (formed in 2005, along with Real Salt Lake), Toronto FC (2007), San Jose Earthquakes (2008), Seattle Sounders FC (2009), Philadelphia Union (2010), Portland Timbers (2011), Vancouver Whitecaps FC (2011) and Montréal Impact (2012) all have yet to play in the MLS championship game.

  • 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.
  • Just one member of the Sporting Kansas City squad has played in an MLS Cup Final. Paulo Nagamura played the entirety of MLS Cup 2005 with the LA Galaxy, a 1-0 win against New England at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
  • Seven players started all four matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs for Sporting Kansas City heading into MLS Cup: Jimmy Nielsen, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Chance Myers, Oriol Rosell, Seth Sinovic and Graham Zusi. Of those, all but Rosell has started all nine of the team's playoff matches in the last three seasons. During this year’s playoffs, 14 different players started matches for SKC.
  • Seven players started all four matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs for Real Salt Lake heading into MLS Cup: defenders Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, midfielders Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil and Javier Morales, and goalkeeper Nick Rimando. During this year’s playoffs, 15 different players started matches for RSL.
  • Sporting KC’s Dom Dwyer scored the game-winning goal in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship vs. Houston, his first career goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Over the 2013 season, Dwyer scored 26 goals for two different clubs in six competitions: MLS regular season (2), MLS Cup Playoffs (1) and CONCACAF Champions League (1) for Sporting KC, and in USL Pro regular season (15), USL Pro playoffs (4) and U.S. Open Cup (3), while on loan to Orlando City SC.
  • C.J. Sapong scored his second career goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs, netting the opener in the East final second leg win against Houston. Sporting have never been on the losing side when Sapong hits the back of the net, now 17-0-2 in all competitions over three seasons when he scores.
  • RSL’s Robbie Findley has scored goals in back-to-back games in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second time in his career, after netting in each leg of the Western Conference Championship. The last time Findley scored in consecutive postseason games was when he scored in each leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. Columbus in Real’s MLS Cup-winning season of 2009. Findley is RSL’s all-time leading postseason scorer with 6 goals in 13 matches.
  • Findley became the fifth player to score goals in consecutive playoff matches, the second for RSL, along with center back Chris Schuler. Also netting in back-to-back games were Aurelien Collin [KC], Omar Cummings [HOU] and Will Johnson [POR]; no player has yet scored in three games in this year’s playoffs.
  • Sporting come into MLS Cup with a key performer looking to return to fitness after midfielder Lawrence Olum suffered a fractured fibula in the East semifinals. Peterson Joseph will not be available for MLS Cup, after suffering a blackout during training before the playoffs. Defender Josh Gardner is listed as questionable with a left ankle sprain, while Paulo Nagamura was suffering from a left ankle strain but played in the Western Conference Championship second leg.
  • Real Salt Lake are hoping to have forward Alvaro Saborio available for MLS Cup, after he missed both legs of the Western Conference Championship with a right hip flexor strain suffered late in the second match vs. the LA Galaxy. Chris Wingert missed the first leg of the West final with a fractured rib and pneumothorax suffered in the first leg against Portland. Defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and goalkeeper Josh Saunders are both out for the season following knee surgery; defender Rich Balchan is doubtful after shoulder surgery.
  • Both teams will be wearing their primary home uniforms, continuing a trend from their previous MLS Cup appearances. Real Salt Lake will be in their all-claret first strip, which they also wore in 2009. KC will be in their Sporting Blue (all light blue) uniforms; they wore their all-blue home kit as the Kansas City Wizards in both 2000 and 2004.
  • For the first time in MLS Cup history, two teams outside the Top 10 media markets in the country (per designated market area) will be contesting the league's championship match. Kansas City is ranked No. 31 and Salt Lake City is No. 33


Should MLS Cup be tied at the end of regulation time (90 minutes), a 30-minute extra-time session shall ensue and be played to its completion. If no team holds a lead after that time, the game shall be decided by the traditional “kicks from the penalty mark” tiebreaker.


MLS Cup 2013 will be broadcast in 161 countries across six countries, the most ever. In addition to the ESPN international broadcasters and broadband outlets, the game will also be distributed by 34 international broadcasters (mostly on cable/DTH). The match will be seen in 60 countries in Africa, 29 countries in Asia, 33 countries in North America, 11 countries in South America, 22 countries in Europe and 2 countries in Australasia.


Sporting KC forward Dom 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.

Dwyer scored his first career goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs, his 63rd-minute strike in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship sending SKC through to MLS Cup 2013. Dwyer has started two of the four postseason games for Sporting.

“I had to come back to KC and finish this season off right. 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.”

Real Salt Lake are one of three teams to have won away in this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs. Sporting KC 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.”

The Sporting Kansas City midfield has been unchanged for the last three matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs, with Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber providing the drive from the center of the park. Feilhaber had recorded 2 assists, setting up the game-winners in the second legs of both playoff series.

“Uri's a little bit more of a connector,” 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.”

Added Feilhaber: “I think that's big for our team. 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.”

Another player who has previously won a championship is SKC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who won the Danish Superliga with Aalborg BK in 1999 – at age 21.

"I don't think I appreciated that [first] championship as much as I apparently should," he said. "It's like I said before, I thought that would be one out of many, and 15 years later I still have only that one championship. So it would be huge for the team. It would be huge for the organization, and it would be huge for me personally."

While Real Salt Lake started its final buildup to MLS Cup 2013 expecting to have the services of striker Álvaro Saborío, Chris Wingert still faced a fight to regain fitness after suffering a fractured rib and pneumothorax in the first leg of the West final against Portland on Nov. 10.

“I think the biggest concern for Chris will be pain tolerance and then protecting that rib,” RSL head coach Jason Kreis said. “He's handling the pain tolerance extremely well, and we leave it to our trainers and doctors to do a good job of padding up that rib.”

Said Wingert: “You only get a few times in your life to play in a championship game. But the guys have been playing awesome without me. And I want to win as much as everybody else. So if that means that somebody else should be playing, so be it.”

The two MLS Cup finalists had the two largest percentages of possession in Major League Soccer this season, with Real Salt Lake leading the league with 56.5%, and Sporting KC just behind with 55.0%.

If there is a difference, it's where the teams use that possession. Real Salt Lake lead the league with an average of 2.36 passes in possessions that lead directly to a shot at goal. Sporting Kansas City is eighth in MLS at 1.79 passes per possession leading to an attempt; the league average is 1.70.