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Injury-laden RSL face table-topping SKC

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another Western Conference rival — but there's new personnel for both sides. The only two unbeaten Western Conference clubs are set for a Battle Royal. Despite this, there are major discrepancies in the standings between the two clubs.

Sporting Kansas City is the only perfect club in the MLS capturing all nine points in their first three matches. Real Salt Lake, on the other hand, has only five points after dropping four points late into their two away matches. However, both these clubs will come into Saturday’s match missing key contributors to disciplinary actions or injury, therefore past results will have less bearing on this match than those prior.

The absence of alternatives

Often a club’s system – how they approach and play a match – is beaten like a dead horse before each and every match. Talking about the club’s tendencies and habits, the words become passé. So long did RSL play in a diamond 4-4-2 system, it has hard to imagine anything outside that small box, but here we are.

Similarly, the roles of the Starting XI also fall victim to these exaggerations. Talking about each regular and their role with the team is done to death. In soccer there are numerous position and varied skills concerning the tactics of the game. Many different names come along with the positions and each player has his own very specific task in a system, but what happens when players are unavailable?

There is no player on RSL’s roster or otherwise that plays just like Kyle Beckerman. The same goes for Jamison Olave, "El Burrito" Juan Martinez, and Javier Morales. The same remains true for Sporting’s Matt Besler, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, and Roger Espinoza – all of whom will likely miss the match due to injury or suspension. What all these words boil down to is that both clubs will not be playing their default styles.

Looking specifically at Sporting, their midfield is beginning to look a bit stretched. Sure, Brad Davis and Jordi Quintillà are talented creators, but one is more traditionally a winger and the latter, still young, struggles with position. Evidence of this can be found within the stats of their last match against Toronto FC. Not only was Sporting’s lone goal by Davis was created more by luck than skill – the goal could have easily been called back for a foul on Justin Morrow seconds before – but Toronto mostly dominated that match. Missing many of their regulars, SKC only managed to create half the number of chances (5) of recent – ten and then eleven, respectfully – throughout ninety minutes of play and the majority of them from wild whipped in crosses. In other words, Kansas struggled creating consistent chances.

Sporting's chances created against Toronto.
Courtesy of Squawka.

Moreover, Soni Mustivar is no Roger Espinoza. Occupying the same part of the pitch as Espinoza, Mustivar gets a far lower tackle winning average (33 percent compared to 50) and boasts a slightly lower passing average (78 to 82) when compared to his mate.

When it comes down to it the absence of alternatives in the midfield may force Sporting away from playing the high tempo, aggressive brand of soccer they are known for.

SKC is neither conceding nor scoring in glut

While the Claret-and-Cobalt is averaging two goals scored and 1.67 conceded per 90, Sporting is finding the back of the net 1.3 times per match and allowing opposition to find it a mere 0.33.

Courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

SKC’s low scoring numbers are not from a lack of trying. Kansas has created 11 more chances than RSL in their first three matches but have a much lower shot accuracy (48 percent). With SKC relying heavily on the counter-attack to create opportunities, their forwards have done little to punish the opposition. Of the 35 shots (including blocked shots) they have let loose on the opposition, only 13 have been on target. So with a forward corps missing its shooting boots and a lack of creators in the midfield, SKC could find itself struggling offensively.

Defensively, however, it has been a different story but now with their Ironman Matt Besler out with concussion symptoms the winds of change might just be blowing. With their captain on the field, SKC has only conceded one goal for the first three matches and it was a penalty, but will Lawrence Olum or Ike Opara be able to fill such big shoes?

Olum, like Aaron Maund, is a strong third-tier center back, but struggles when relied on in the big moments. Opara on the other hand is steady, but he has not made an appearance on the field or even the bench for SKC after an offseason hamstring injury. With that in mind, it is easy to see how lack of chemistry at the back may finally prove to be troublesome for the men in blue.

Either way, fans can expect an outlier in the statistics for this match. Whether it comes on the offensive or defensive side of the pitch for Kansas remains to be seen but this could be the match were the 1.3 and the 0.3 average are due for a complete overhaul.

Several other things to keep an eye on:

3. Since making the move to Kansas from the Houston Dynamo this offseason, Brad Davis has already become one of the top performers for his new club. In a mere 58 minutes so far in 2016, Davis has already scored a goal and created an excellent scoring opportunity. What’s more is that he even contributes defensively, averaging one defensive action per match.

2. SKC’s new Portuguese defender Nuno Andre Coelho has already tasted success in Europe winning both the Portuguese national cup and league. And, in the MLS, he has already shown he can be dangerous from a distance.

1. After going 81 minutes for the U.S. national team against Guatemala and Tuesday and scoring the third team goal, Graham Zusi comes home a hero but will he find time on the pitch or will his travels see him sit this one out?

Expected Lineups

SKC (4-3-3)

GK: Melia

DEF: Myers, Nuno Coelho, Olum, Dia

MID: Mustivar, Jordi Quintilla, Davis

ATT: Hallisey, Dwyer, Zusi

RSL (4-3-3)

GK: Rimando

DEF: Beltran, Glad, Maund, Wingert

MID: Mulholland, Sunny, Allen

ATT: Sandoval, Movsisyan, Plata

Keys to the match:

Plata the creative spark for RSL

Luke Mulholland covering the midfield

Exploiting a weakened SKC backline

*Spoiling SKC's 2016 record*

Watch RSL on Saturday, March 19th at 6:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on KMYU or MLS LIVE.