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MLS Cup positional edges: Looks at the midfields for Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City

Dec 6, 2013, 3:30 PM EST

CONCACAF CS Herediano Real Salt Lake Soccer

Conventionally we think of Sporting Kansas City having a three-man midfield (4-3-3 formation) and Real Salt Lake with a four (4-4-2), but that’s our lazy numeric notation letting us down. Though they set up differently, each midfield functions as a three-plus-one with some  comparable roles. Vaguely:

  • The Holders: Kyle Beckerman is the most established defensive midfielder in the league, while Spaniard Oriol Rosell is an up-and-coming talent.
  • The Shuttlers: Veterans Paulo Nagamura and Ned Grabavoy provide give each team a box-to-box presence, able to complement the holder with help in front of the defense or get into the box and tip the balance in the attacking third.
  • The Connectors: Both Luis Gil and Benny Feilhaber provide their trio’s skill – players who can serve as outlets and turn on the ball at the edge of their own defensive third.
  • The Plus-Ones: They aren’t outright midfielders, but beyond the defensive third, Javier Morales and Graham Zusi are the team’s focal points, finding space between the forwards and midfielders that allows them to orchestrate their team’s opportunities.

Player for player, Real Salt Lake may have a slight advantage, but when we’re assessing edges for Saturday’s final, the players don’t exist in a vacuum. They match up against each other. Kyle Beckerman, with help from Grabavoy and Gil, will have to contain Zusi and account for Feilhaber and the oncoming Nagamura. Oriol Rosell and Nagamura will be charged with making life difficult for Morales.

We’ve seen RSL enough to know that years of experience in their system leaves Gil and Grabavoy less likely to overlook a runner, forget where they need to be when be as the midfield shifts, or misread an attacking chance that leaves the team light through the middle. But can we say the same for Feilhaber, who – for all as talents going forward, and his huge contribution defensively against Houston – is neither an old hand in this role nor consistent in providing that defensive presence?

It’s not that Feilhaber’s oblivious, loafing around the field, thumbing at his iPhone until you pass him the ball. He’s not. But if you’re looking for potential differences between the two units, this is one.

As with the goalkeepers and defense, this is practically a push, and depending on your point of view, that will either make for a great game or a stalemate. But if you’re asking who you’d rather have right now, in the roles they’ll play on Saturday, and given their current form:

  • Morales or Zusi?
  • Beckerman or Rosell?
  • Grabavoy and Gil or Feilhaber and Nagamura?

It’s a close call, but given one of these teams is defined and prides itself on how they setup and perform through the middle, it’s not surprise the Claret and Cobalt edge this one.

EDGE: Slight Real Salt Lake

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