A few years ago while RSL was in a slump, Jason Kreis’ men absolutely destroyed an opponent at Rio Tinto Stadium. On the walk from the press box downstairs to the locker rooms and post-match press conference, I ran into RSL GM Garth Lagerwey. I tried to congratulate him and suggest his team had regained its form. He cut me off, noting the opponent was a really bad soccer team. Sure enough, Salt Lake’s slump wasn’t over. The side struggled through the next few matches.
Competition matters when using the eyeball test. A poor opponent can make a mediocre team look great, while a great team can make a good team look terrible.
With that in mind, the disparity in form between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City could not be starker. Except for 60 minutes in which Kreis tried a new formation, Real Salt Lake dominated arguably the two most dangerous teams in the MLS playoffs. In contrast, Kansas City barely advanced against two pretty weak opponents.
Consider Salt Lake’s opponents.
The L.A. Galaxy turned on the jets in each of the last two post-seasons, winning both MLS Cups. In one of those seasons, L.A. barely made the playoffs, but it still won it all.
The Portland Timbers posted the best goal differential in the league. That is because Caleb Porter’s side lost only five regular season matches all season, half as many losses as Sporting Kansas City.
Yet Jason Kreis’ men made DPs Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane disappear in the second leg of the L.A. series and beat Portland outright in both playoff matches with the Oregon side.
What about Kansas City’s opponents?
The same New England Revolution that barely made the playoffs in the last weekend of the season nearly beat Sporting. The series ended in extra time, with Sporting coming from down two goals just to level the match.
Sporting then advanced to play a weary and wounded Houston Dynamo that did not look like itself. Despite playing through massive exhaustion in the first leg of the series, Houston kept the match scoreless. Then, without two critical players in the second leg, Houston actually took a lead in Kansas City before giving up two goals and the Eastern Conference championship.
Assuming equal competition, Real Salt Lake has looked like a much better squad than Sporting Kansas City in these playoffs. But equal competition didn’t exist. Salt Lake played much better opponents.
That disparity is the biggest thing going for Jason Kreis’ men heading to the MLS Cup final.