Apparently, it was a good year to be No. 2 in Major League Soccer. Following Real Salt Lake's advancement on Sunday and Sporting Kansas City's a day earlier, both No. 2 seeds in the Western and Eastern Conference tables have advanced, setting up a 2013 MLS Cup that it's safe to say few expected.
For many, it had been preordained from the start of the postseason that the New York Red Bulls and the Portland Timbers would meet in the finale of the United States' soccer season. Or, if it wasn't both of them, at least one of the two teams that had topped their respective conferences would have at least gotten a shot.
But, alas, it wasn't meant to be. Real Salt Lake won both of their legs against Portland, good for an aggregate score of 5-2. Their celebration of their first MLS Cup appearance since 2009 even took place before a shell-shocked crowd at Portland's Jel-Wen Field.
Sporting Kansas City's triumph was a little less certain. Heading into Saturday's matchup at Sporting Park, the two teams had played to a scoreless draw two weeks prior. When the Dynamo took an early lead on Oscar Boniek García's goal in the third minute, it looked like Houston was on the precipice of knocking off both Eastern top seeds.
Only it wasn't to be. CJ Sapong knotted the match up in the 14th minute, and Dom Dwyer's second-half strike to the back of the net capped it off.
It may not have been the final anyone expected, but it's hard to argue there were two teams that played better when it counted most. With that in mind, let's check in with a complete preview of the 2013 MLS Cup, complete with a prediction for who will hoist the trophy.
When: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Sporting Park in Kansas City
How Much Will Home-Field Advantage Play a Factor?
In structure, the MLS is in many ways an amalgam of United States and European concepts. The league uses a table rather than traditional divisional structure—though that's probably in large part due to the lack of teams in MLS—but splits into two regional conferences. They use the table points to create a European home-and-home playoff, which uses tradition and satiates our American need to have everything determined by a postseason tournament.
The MLS Cup, though? I have no earthly idea. Rather than continue the home-and-home concept, the MLS Cup is but a mere one-time deal. Which, of course, is all well and good. You're trying to draw excitement to your year's biggest event. Explaining aggregate scoring and all that nonsense to the casual fan is just asking for them to turn the channel.
But this arrangement? Where Kansas City gets to the one-off MLS Cup because of two table points? Yeah, that strikes me as a little odd.
Alas, it's the system in which these two teams are playing and could wind up playing a major factor. Kansas City have been stellar at home for the most of the season and especially of late, having recorded points in all but two of their matches at Sporting Park since the beginning of July. They've been better in nearly every category one can think of down the line, as one would expect when playing before fans who don't generally want to, like, throw batteries at you or something.
The home-road splits on both sides of the equation are so obvious they might as well be doing jumping jacks before our eyes. At home, Kansas City have scored 29 goals and allowed 15. On the road, they have scored only 18 goals compared to the same amount against.
How do Real Salt Lake fare, you ask? Oh, just about the same. Real have scored 31 times at home and allowed 16—a better home split than their opponent. And, on the road, their scoring has been stellar, putting up an MLS-high 26 road goals. But their defense becomes abysmal away from the friendly confines, dipping from elite levels to somewhere in the middle of the pack with 25 goals allowed.
It's impossible to know beforehand just how much that will play a factor in a one-game sample. Real Salt Lake, after all, managed to win a very respectable six road contests this year. And, in their one head-to-head matchup this season, Kansas City came away with a 2-1 victory. So it's not like playing a home-and-home would have guaranteed anything.
Either way, the MLS made one of their Cup representatives' lives a whole lot harder with the decision to move away from a neutral field.
If this were the other football, there would be plenty of bloviation about how these two sides juxtapose one another. On one side of the field, you have one of the league's best defensive teams in Kansas City. They managed to hold Houston to just one goal over 180 minutes, and Jimmy Nielsen has been spectacular all season despite his advanced age.
With Graham Zusi there to set up the goals and Claudio Bieler there to finish attempts off, Kansas City would seem to have just enough goal-scoring capabilities to pull it off.
On the other side, Real Salt Lake are just a scoring machine. The combination of Alvaro Saborío, Javier Morales and Joao Plata Cotera has given opponents fits all season long, no matter where the opening pitch came from. To expect them to be held scoreless for the entire match might be a stretch too far.
In other words, I expect this contest to be 1-1 very deep into the second half. When it comes to parsing which side will come out on top, I keep coming back to the one factor out of everyone's control: home field. Kansas City tied for the MLS high with 17 home wins during the regular season.
I think Zusi and Bieler both score to give the Sporting fans something to cheer about.
Score: Sporting Kansas City 2, Real Salt Lake 1
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