KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, the MLS Cup narrative has been crafted with a series of buzz words. Continuity. Philosophy. Identity.
The conference champions have earned the right to throw those terms around. While Kansas City is defined by its high-pressing 4-3-3 formation, Salt Lake's 4-4-2 diamond offers a more elegant approach.
But those differences are outweighed by the parallels. Both teams, for the most part, live and die by their styles. They've both overcome small-market handicaps with savvy branding and shrewd management. And, most notably, they've been playoff fixtures over the past three years.
"It says something about consistency and philosophy," Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said. "Coaching turnover and player turnover oftentimes doesn't result in success. It takes a long time to develop who you are — a playing philosophy, a system for your club, an identity for your club."
After the postseason failures of recent years, Kansas City and Salt Lake on Saturday will converge on the league's grandest stage.
RSL in 2013 overcame what Kreis thought would be a .500 campaign, going 16-10-8 before ousting the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers from the postseason. Although salary cap restrictions forced the offseason exits of Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola, in-house replacements Chris Schuler and Luis Gil, along with the re-acquired Robbie Findley, filled the void — particularly come playoff time.
Sporting, on the other hand, rode the league's stingiest defense to a 17-10-7 mark, then exorcised its playoff demons with aggregate wins against the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo, the side that eliminated Kansas City each of the past two seasons.
And Kansas City with its two-point advantage in the standings over Salt Lake won the right to host the title game at Sporting Park, bringing the league's marquee spectacle to America's heartland.
"As a player, you have to do what got you here," Kansas City playmaker Graham Zusi said. "There are plenty of distractions going on but we need to be extremely focused about ourselves. Saying that, it's extremely exciting to have this event in our home city. It's a reward for ourselves and our fans for what we did this season."
While Sporting's defense, anchored by All-Star center backs Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, has topped the league each of the past two seasons, RSL's free-flowing attack was the second best in MLS this year.
With both teams strong in possession, the management of the midfield numbers will be key as Kansas City's trio of Uri Rosell, Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber tries to disrupt the four-man unit of Gil, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy and Javier Morales.
When Sporting grabbed a last-gasp 2-1 win at RSL in July, the match featured 26 fouls, seven cautions and an ejection. Could that be a sign of things to come Saturday?
"It'll definitely be physical," Beckerman said. "For Kansas City, all 11 players play really hard. That's what we're going to have to try to match."
Both sides should be near full strength, with Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio (leg) and defender Chris Wingert (rib) poised to return to the lineup, though Kreis said rookie forward Devon Sandoval will be "touch and go" after suffering a knock in training Wednesday.
With Kreis' contract up at season's end, the match could prove critical to the legacy he leaves with Salt Lake. RSL has made the postseason in each of his six full seasons, yet the team has just the 2009 MLS Cup to show for it — a light trophy haul made all the more disappointing by the team's 1-0 loss to lowly D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup final in October.
"This might be the last match that I get to be coach with this group," Kreis acknowledged. "I will soak it up for sure — every single moment of it."
It'll be all the more special if Salt Lake comes out on top. Whichever organization does walk away with its second MLS Cup trophy, it will represent the culmination of not just one season's work but of years of identity-building.
Two teams, two distinct approaches — but one overarching blueprint for success.
"There has been consistent play from this group over the last three or four years to get here," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. "Ultimately, it comes down now to this game."
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