KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Since the 2013 MLS Cup Final matchup was set, there has been plenty of talk about the differences between the participating teams, from the perceived style class to the very different personalities of head coaches Jason Kreis and Peter Vermes. One thing Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have in common is the masterful approach both clubs took in building their rosters.
In MLS, where the salary cap is a puzzle very few master to the fullest, Sporting KC and RSL have followed similar roadmaps toward constructing complete teams that not only boast quality starters, but also effective depth, and both did so while losing key players in the process.
Neither team can be confused with big-spending clubs like New York, Los Angeles or Seattle (though Sporting KC spends more via the Designated Player route than RSL does). No, rather than building around big-money acquisitions, both Sporting KC and RSL have focused on fundamental methods to maximize the rules MLS has in place for building rosters.
The success both teams have enjoyed thanks to their smart roster building goes beyond their participation in Saturday’s MLS Cup Final. Sporting KC has had one of the two best records in MLS in each of the past three seasons, while RSL has spent the past five years playing what is widely regarded as some of the best soccer in the league.
Here is a look at how the 2013 MLS Cup Finalists have followed similar paths to constructing two of the best rosters in the league:
THE MLS DRAFT ROUTE
As much as you can make a big splash on the international market, the existence of the salary cap makes scoring values in the MLS Draft an absolute priority. Sporting KC has done this for years, having built the nucleus of its team via the draft. Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Chance Myers, C.J. Sapong and Dom Dwyer all came via the MLS draft route, as did Roger Espinoza, who left for the English Premier League on a free transfer a year ago.
Real Salt Lake has done well in the draft as well, nabbing some important pieces to the team’s 2013 puzzle, including Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Sebastian Velasquez and Devon Sandoval.
THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET
The lifeblood of success in MLS is finding impact players on the international market, and doing so in a way that gets you the most value. Swing and miss on your foreign signings and you’re in for a long year. Hit on a few, and you can turn your team into a powerhouse.
Both RSL and Sporting KC have done very well on the international front, some would argue they’ve been among the league’s best. RSL brought in Jamison Olave, whom they traded away before this season, while also adding standouts like Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio and more recently Olmes Garcia.
Sporting KC has had mixed results with Designated Players, with the likes of Omar Bravo passing through, and Claudio Bieler showing good form before ultimately settling into Peter Vermes’ doghouse, but it has been some other key foreign signings that have made a major impact despite not costing much. Jimmy Nielsen, Aurelien Collin and Uri Rosell all arrived in MLS with little fanfare, and all three have developed into three of the league’s best at their positions.
Rosell was an especially shrewd addition. Plucked out of Barcelona’s system as a teenager, Rosell slowly worked his way into Vermes’ system before stepping in as the natural replacement for Espinoza when the Honduran went to Wigan. Now Rosell is 21 and one of the best young midfielders in MLS.
THE MLS RECYCLING BIN
Finding value in MLS castoffs is an art, and one not many teams pull off with any regularity. RSL and Sporting KC are two such teams.
Benny Feilhaber and Ike Opara were both very highly-regarded prospects early in their careers, and Feilhaber was a World Cup veteran, but both players were regarded as surplus by their teams last winter before Sporting KC snatched up the pair. Opara went on to enjoy the best season of his pro career, filling in expertly for regular starting centerbacks Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, helping both reduce the wear and tear they faced during the season. As for Feilhaber, he had an up-and-down regular season, but has been a force in the playoffs and one of the keys to Sporting KC’s run to the final.
Then you have Sporting KC left back Seth Sinovic, cut by New England in 2011 before being signed by Kansas City. The team nearly lost him in the 2012 MLS expansion draft, but pulled off a trade to get him back and he has quietly established himself as one of the best left backs in the league.
Real Salt Lake’s reclamation projects run throughout the roster. Joao Plata was snatched up in a bargain trade from TFC last winter, while squad players like Khari Stephenson, Cole Grossman, Lovel Palmer and Abdoulie Mansally have all stepped up to fill rolls when needed.
One of RSL’s most important players in 2013 was Ned Grabavoy, who was picked up as a reclamation project in a 2009 waiver draft. A member of RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup-winning side, Grabavoy enjoyed a career year in 2013.
The ability of both Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake to find bargains, make shrewd foreign signings and smart draft picks has them each on the verge of a championship, and they have both helped provide a blueprint for every team in MLS to follow when trying to build a winner.