Cup final testament to small markets
Big stars and hasty rebuilding efforts act as siren calls to distract clubs from the tried and true methods used to extract success in MLS. The lure of splashing the cash and waiting for the benefits to manifest seduces too many teams in a league constructed upon more rudimentary building blocks. It is little wonder those sides crashed into the rocks and watched RSL and Sporting step into the void.
“No disrespect to any of the other teams in MLS, but I truly believe that two of the better teams are in MLS Cup,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said.
They did not reach the final by outspending their rivals or overwhelming them with world-class players. They advanced to this showpiece at Sporting Park (live, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET) by cultivating an identity, honing a system, identifying the talented players capable of functioning within it and nurturing a philosophy over an extended period of time to achieve their goals.
“If I were to think about the entire league, I think Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have two distinct styles that they have implemented and they do not go away from those styles very often,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said. “It says something about leadership and management sticking with coaches and also trying to identify a style and a system and sticking with that.”
There are no shortcuts available to reach that point. Deposed champions LA Galaxy proved it as they toiled away until finding the proper balance under Bruce Arena’s deft stewardship over the past two seasons. It requires patience to cobble together the building blocks and ride through the initial doubts and fears. It takes savvy to transition from promise to production to sustained success. Many teams try and fail. A few hit the heights for a season or two before the tide of those salary budget strictures washes their side away and leaves component parts in its wake.
RSL and Sporting survived those inevitable defections by tinkering appropriately and trusting their core players to carry them through. They cast aside previously integral figures at beneficial junctures to mitigate their budgetary concerns and preserve their underpinnings. They sacrificed smartly to ensure their fundamental principles did not erode with the departures and their prolonged success did not end by removing one or two key players from a group with several more still in the fold.
“We’ve been together a long time,” Kreis said. “Consistency, in our league, is one way to get to success. As I’ve seen in the history of the league since 1996, the best teams have always been the ones who have stayed together the longest. Some of that is borne of success. If you’re not good enough, you won’t be staying together very long. I think it’s a circle. But again, I think it all comes down to teamwork and consistency and leadership.”
It also requires adherence to the ethos imparted and maintained from top to bottom. RSL and Sporting possess a keen awareness of how they function and who might fit into their systems. They pursue additions capable of adjusting on the field and willing to adhere to the inviolable procedures enforced off of it.
“The coaching staff, they do a really good job of bringing in good people, not just good soccer players,” RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “When you have that combination, we know who is coming in and we are trying to welcome them and get them on board as soon as possible. On the other hand, these guys see what we have going on in Salt Lake. They want to get on board as quickly as possible. They want to be a part of the team, part of the winning mentality.”
Success reinforces success after a while. No good run lasts forever. The window eventually closes. But the measures these teams take ensure their opening has lasted far longer than their budgets suggest it should.
This final serves a testament to the firm foundations laid at both clubs. They do not play in large markets. They do not possess the resources available to some of their peers. They merely turn up every single week with clear directives and comprehensive ways to impose them time and time again to the frustration of their opponents.
“It’s exciting to be part of — if you will — a small market (team), having the consistency we’ve had over the years, and the way we’ve gone about building a team and (watching) the way these guys have prepared themselves for excellence,” Vermes said.
Perhaps the paradigm will change as the financial philosophy of the league and its clubs evolves. Perhaps those alterations will reduce the effectiveness of this sort of collective approach. Even if the model does gradually shift in some substantive way, it will not erase the lessons learned over time. There is a place for clubs willing to chart a bold course and follow it devoutly. For this moment at least, it is in the final.