MLS Weekend Preview: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City evolve to pursue objectives

Latitude isn’t a luxury afforded to Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City. There isn’t a massive telecommunications company or a wealthy sheikh to bankroll major signings. They do not exist in markets with global appeal for big-name foreign players. They must figure out a different way to consistently thrive in a league constructed on the foundations of parity.

RSL and Sporting continue to push toward the top through careful planning, intelligent talent identification and prudent spending. Both clubs constructed strong foundations along ago and then tweaked them accordingly as the situation permits. Their principles carried them to that fateful MLS Cup meeting in 2013 and placed them in a position to thrive over the long term in a league where other clubs enjoy greater advantages and marshal more resources.

The meeting between the two sides on Sunday (live, 10:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) highlights the need to evolve in order to stay ahead of the pack.

Sporting made several signings during the offseason in a bid to freshen things up after a poor end to last season. The arrivals of Roger Espinoza and Kristzian Nemeth prompted some alterations to compensate within the team structure. The high pressure varies a bit more now, while the midfield took a bit of time to accommodate Espinoza. Sporting manager Peter Vermes worked through those issues to establish the right balance and turn this side on course. The current seven-match unbeaten run reflects the effectiveness of those measures.

RSL remains mired in a different place as it grapples with injuries and tries to sort through its own issues. RSL boss Jeff Cassar made the bold decision to steer away from the 4-4-2 diamond shape at the outset of the season to accommodate his three strikers, but he veered back to a four-man midfield when the performances and the results did not meet expectations. Many of the problems encountered stem from absences and players falling short of the expected standards. The corresponding results — RSL sits ninth in the West, four points out of a playoff spot heading into the weekend — reflect some of teething issues inherent.

For both teams, the objectives remain lofty. There is a desire to make the best use of the available resources to strengthen during the transfer window, but there is also a recognition that Andrea Pirlo isn’t walking through the door either. Both teams have established their parameters and followed them to success. It is now incumbent on them to sustain the progress in order to maintain their perch in the months and the years ahead.

Colorado Rapids — FC Dallas, Friday, 9:00p.m. ET (UniMas, Univision Deportes)

The previous two meetings between the two sides offered up one thumping (Colorado taking advantage of a FCD performance ranking among the very worst in the league this season) and one snoozer. Expect this affair to find the middle ground with FCD still fitful in its quest to produce results reliably and the Rapids still struggling to convert chances into end product.

Seattle Sounders — San Jose Earthquakes, Saturday, 4:00p.m. ET

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid spent much of this week sifting through the fallout from the calamitous Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup defeat to Portland on Tuesday. Clint Dempsey (suspension) and Obafemi Martins (groin injury) are both ruled out. Look for Lamar Neagle to perhaps push up front once more with Chad Barrett on the mend.

Toronto FC — New York City FC, Saturday, 7:00p.m. ET (Sportsnet 360)

NYCFC cobbled together its best display of the campaign in the victory over Montréal last weekend. The expansion side then followed up that triumph by blowing a two-goal lead to New York Cosmos on Tuesday. Toronto FC presents a more formidable task than either of the previous two adversaries with Michael Bradley back from international duty and Jozy Altidore back in the fold after recovering from his hamstring injury. NYCFC must respond accordingly to harbor any realistic chance to secure a result.

New York Red Bulls — Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 7:00p.m. ET (TSN2)

Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch fielded his starters in the Open Cup victory against Atlanta Silverbacks on Tuesday. The decision highlighted the desire to take the competition seriously and underscored the need to find a spark after a run of one win in the previous eight league matches. The injury to Lloyd Sam complicates the potential benefits, though. It remains to be seen whether these Red Bulls can use that boost accordingly to cope with a Whitecaps side capable of sitting back, soaking up pressure and waiting for the right time to counter.

Montréal Impact — Orlando City, Saturday, 8:00p.m. ET (TVA Sports)

Orlando City travels to Stade Saputo with a pair of stirring victories in tow after a triumph over D.C. United on Sunday and an Open Cup victory in Charleston in midweek. The key for Adrian Heath’s side: sustaining the progress. The expansion team continues to pile up results away from home (3-2-2 on the season) with a blend of alert work on the break and solid structure. Those foundations must remain in place to frustrate an Impact side utterly reliant on its own home form to fuel any postseason challenge. 

LA Galaxy — Philadelphia Union, Saturday, 10:30p.m. ET

Galaxy boss Bruce Arena started Robbie Keane against an amateur side in the Open Cup midweek in a bid to get his captain on track. Keane responded with a hat trick in the 6-1 victory over PSA Elite. The Ireland captain must translate that sort of potency to his league affairs. The tattered state of the Union defense offers plenty of room for encouragement.

Portland Timbers — Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 10:30p.m. ET

Everything is starting to come together for the Timbers after an indifferent start to the season. Three wins on the trot in league play — plus the victory over Seattle in the Open Cup on Tuesday — reflect the potential of the side. The next step involves maintaining that firm defensive core (two shutouts in the past three games) against a Dynamo side stripped of the influential Giles Barnes (Copa America duty with Jamaica).

D.C. United — New England Revolution, Sunday, 5:00p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

The top two sides in the Eastern Conference enter this affair with a keen appreciation for its demands. The gritty 1-1 draw reflects the state of play here: It will be a tight, tense affair with the odd mistake or the odd moment of brilliance likely to separate the sides on the night.

Real Salt Lake — Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, 10:00p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes)

Both teams continue to transition toward their best versions of themselves as this season unfolds. Sporting is further along in the process at the moment with a more measured approach to pressure and a revised balance in midfield. RSL must figure out how to cope with Sporting’s midfield three in order to lay the foundation required for a result.