In what could be a preview of the MLS Championship Game later this year, Western Conference leader Real Salt Lake (RSL) will take its 5-1-0 record to Eastern Conference leader Kansas City on Saturday, where Sporting KC (SKC) will defend the only perfect record in Major League Soccer (5-0-0).
RSL will attempt to win an unprecedented third consecutive road game, but Sporting KC is not a team to take lightly, particularly at home. They are a team that cherishes possession of the ball and at the same time play a fairly aggressive style of soccer that frequently results in a large number of players around the goalie box.
On the other side of the pitch, RSL plays a similar style, and are even more aggressive, but this has typically cost them the possession game, which could hurt the team for Saturday’s match.
RSL’s aggressive play has resulted in 11 goals in six games, but their pressing style has also allowed opponents to knock in four goals against them. Still, RSL is definitely a team of opportunities, and capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes is a hallmark of their particular brand of soccer. Their own mistakes, however, have also come back to haunt them, and against a team the caliber of Sporting KC could be the deciding factor in this hotly anticipated game.
Their similarities continue. Each team enjoys the luxury of having a couple of the most prolific scorers in Major League Soccer.
Sporting KC’s midfielder Kei Kamara leads the league in shots and shots on goal, and is fifth in goals with three in five games. SKC are also getting great production out of forward C.J. Sapong, who’s tallied three goals in just 354 minutes played.
Fabian Espindola, Real Salt Lake forward, is nearly stride-for-stride with Kamara with three goals and an assist of his own. RSL forward Alvaro Saborio has chipped in an additional two goals and one assist in a mere 289 minutes of play; an outstanding contribution by any standard.
It’s easy to see why these two teams lead their respective conferences. This game could definitely come down to goaltending, and if that’s the case then you’ll have to decide for yourself who gets the edge.
In five games this season, Jimmy Nielsen has been nearly perfect for Sporting KC, erring only once for an infinitesimal goals-against average of 0.20 per game, which tops the MLS. However, he’s only faced eight legitimate shots, and one could make a reasonable argument that he hasn’t really been tested. He’ll be tested on Saturday.
Defending the other goal will be Nick Rimando, who’s played every minute of RSL’s six games this season. He’s allowed four goals on 22 shots for a very respectable 0.67 goals-against average, which is third-best in the league, and should be up to defending against the ball-control style of Sporting KC.
Without question this is the game to watch in the early part of the 2012 MLS season, which makes it all the worse—and all the more confusing—that the majority of MLS fans around the country will be watching a different game.
For some reason the hottest game of the MLS season will only be broadcast in the Kansas City and Salt Lake City television markets. As a person whose favorite teams have always been out-of-market, I truly feel the pain of MLS fans everywhere.
It’s time for MLS fans to demand a more efficient broadcast schedule, which will always benefit fans and reward the best teams in the league with national exposure. Flex Scheduling, like NBC Sports enjoys with the National Football League would make a great deal of sense for Major League Soccer. As a broadcaster of national games for MLS, NBC Sports should be able to choose the game they want to air, based on records and likely viewership.
With two strong and competitive teams, like RSL and SKC, this is undoubtedly going to be one of the most exciting games of the year, even if many fans won’t be able to tune in.