Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake Is a Matchup of Conference Leaders

Alan HainkelContributor IApril 14, 2012

KANSAS CITY, KS - AUGUST 03:  Kei Kamara #23 of Sporting Kansas City battles Nat Borchers #6 and Chris Wingert #17 of Real Salt Lake for a head ball during the game on August 3, 2011 at LiveStrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On one side, you have the visitors from Utah, Real Salt Lake. Led by manager Jason Kreis, RSL is in first place in the Western Conference with 15 points (of a possible 18).

On the other, you have the hosts, Sporting Kansas City. Under the direction of manager Peter Vermes, Sporting KC is in first place in the Eastern Conference with 15 points (of a possible 15).

On paper, this looks like it could be an early-season preview of MLS Cup, right?

Not according to Vermes, it isn't. When he was asked at the weekly press conference if today's match was a preview of MLS Cup, he told us, "It's just the next game on the schedule."

That answer fits in with the way Vermes says the team tries to deal with the season: in 45-minute increments.

It seems to be working. Not only has Sporting KC not lost a match this season, they've not lost a half, either. The only game they fell behind in (at home against FC Dallas), the equalizer was struck in first-half stoppage time and the game-winner was put in two minutes from full time.

To say Sporting KC's defense has been playing well this season would be an understatement. Team captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has a GAA of 0.20. The team has not allowed a shot on goal in a league-record 254 minutes.

The last shot on goal? Ricardo Villar's 25th minute goal for Dallas on March 25th.

Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter VermesEd Zurga/Getty Images

In contrast, Real Salt Lake has had periods of dominance, but they've been interspersed with periods of utter vulnerability. The crossbar was probably goalkeeper Nick Rimando's best friend against the Galaxy on the road, keeping a Landon Donovan blast out.

As far as health is concerned, Sporting KC has the edge there, as well. For the most part, the only injury Sporting KC has to deal with is the back injury of backup goalkeeper Eric Kronberg. Kronberg has not made the bench this season, but has now returned to training.

Real Salt Lake's midfield, on the other hand, could be missing a few pieces. Ned Grabavoy (left rib cage dislocation), Enzo Martinez (lower back spasms) and Javier Morales (strained right hamstring) are all listed as doubtful on the team's injury report.

There are a few reasons I believe that Sporting KC will win this match, starting with their style of play. The high-pressure, attacking style that Sporting KC uses with their 4-3-3 formation has been producing great results so far. At home or on the road, Sporting KC will come after you nonstop.

Another factor that can't be discounted is the home crowd. As Taylor Twellman said on ESPN before last week's match with the Galaxy, "If you had told me five years ago that this stadium and this crowd were in Kansas City, I would've said you were nuts."

The team is expecting another capacity crowd, and with the way the roof holds the sound in, LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is an incredibly difficult place to play for an opposing team. Just ask the Galaxy about that.

Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis
Real Salt Lake manager Jason KreisGeorge Frey/Getty Images

With all of that in mind, I will say this game will not be easy. Any Kreis-led team will not roll over and play dead. He was never that way as a player in the league.

I asked Vermes about that during the press conference. I asked how playing against Kreis translated into coaching against him.

Vermes said, "Jason was a very good player and he also was an efficient player on the field and I think his team plays that way as well. They're efficient. They stick to what they're good at and they go do it and they're good at it. And I think that's what translates to knowing, at least, him and what he does."

Should be a great game.

Alan Hainkel is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.