The best action from the second leg of the MLS Cup playoffs conference final was highlighted by Real Salt Lake's defense, but what about the worst?
Plenty of candidates met the criteria this weekend, but the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City took inept turns in the final third of the pitch on Saturday. All that transpired at JELD-WEN Field the next day paled in comparison.
Here is a look at why that turned out to be the case.
Best: Real Salt Lake's defense
The Portland Timbers entered the second leg of the conference final needing at least two goals to send the tie into extra time. Instead, they scored none.
There's a reason for that.
Even with 54.9 percent possession and 18 attempts, the Timbers finished the evening with as many goals as they have trophies—zero. A club that finished the season having completed 79.2 percent of its passes only found a 72 percent accuracy in the biggest match of the season. Even worse, 17.5 percent of Portland's 40 crosses successfully connected.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando was forced to make just two saves all night.
According to the RSL's website, the 34-year-old Rimando credits the central pairing of Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers for the club's defensive efforts:
Fantastic. Getting him back was huge for us, you know. We had a lot of different pairings during the season. And we missed him, he got injured, and having him back has been huge. He's just a big presence pack there. Wins a lot of head balls for us. But also he talks. He's a big organizer, and him and Nat together are very good, and I'm happy he's back.
Real Salt Lake is "happy" to be back in the MLS Cup final. Their 1-0 victory over the Timbers was enough to see their club through with a 5-2 aggregate win. Four years after lifting the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy, RSL has returned to the final stage in search of hardware.
At least D.C. United won't be on the opposite end waiting for them this time.
Worst: The "Finishing" at Sporting Park
The "quality" of MLS has remained an issued debate since the league's inception in 1996. Former New England Revolution head coach Steve Nicol did MLS perceptions no favors after his comments during a recent segment of ESPN FC.
Matt Slater of BBC Sport further exacerbated the issue after carrying the Scotsman's comments in an article from earlier this month:
They have done everything in terms of getting the league going. They've built it almost from scratch...But what they have to do now is improve the product. That means bringing in better players, or producing more of their own...Seven or eight years ago I thought the best teams could have scrapped it out in the Premier League, but now they are more like Championship teams, top six perhaps...There are just too many teams for the number of good players they've got. Take this move to 24 teams. Forget the squads, just look at the first teams: that's nearly 270 players. That will mean a lot of players having careers they shouldn't have.
Houston and Sporting Kansas City did very little to dismiss those claims on Saturday.
Well, at least not in the first half.
Dom Dwyer took the first step down that slippery slope after failing to connect in the eighth minute. A deft touch was all it took to open the affair, but the 23-year-old couldn't deliver the first blow. Cam Weaver followed suit just 20 minutes later when he fired an immaculate cross from Corey Ashe past the stands and into the heavens.
It probably still hasn't landed.
C.J. Sapong took his turn in the festivities with seconds remaining in the first half with a stumbling effort just outside the six-yard box before halftime mercifully arrived. Entertaining as it may have been, a certain "quality" was missing in the final third of the pitch.
Suffice it to say that Nicol was not impressed.
Honorable Mention: Benny Feilhaber
Benny Feilhaber cost allocation money and two draft choices for Sporting Kansas City...and was worth every penny on Saturday night.
Feilhaber's majestic performance helped propel Sporting Kansas City to their first MLS Cup final since 2004. The stat sheet simply read 84 minutes played and one game-winning assist but Feilhaber's performance extended far beyond that.
Head coach Peter Vermes was well aware of that fact, according to Steve Brisendine of MLSsoccer.com:
I told him after the game, I said to him that that was why we brought him here. His ability to open up a defense is exactly what we were looking for.
And "open up a defense" he did.
Feilhaber proved to be the offensive catalyst on the evening. Not only did the 28-year-old complete 39 of his 44 passes, but as MLSsoccer.com fantasy editor Ben Jata pointed out, Felihaber completed at least two passes to every member on his team. Even better, Feilhaber finished his 84-minute shift with five key passes.
No pass was more key than his immaculate assist in the 63rd minute.
Take nothing away from Dwyer's clever finish, don't neglect the vision and the touch that Feilhaber displayed on his congested run. It was an effort that helped deliver a 2-1 victory and exorcised the demons of playoffs past for Sporting Kansas City.
It was as an effort that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
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