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Small-market teams set for battle in MLS title game

Dec 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks about the state of the league at Google Offices. Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY
Dec 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks about the state of the league at Google Offices. Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY

(Reuters) - Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City will bring none of the pizzazz to Saturday's Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final that the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls could offer.

But the small market teams do offer proof that the MLS model built on a modest salary cap and competitive balance is working, adding weight to commissioner Don Garber's boast that MLS will be considered among the world's best soccer league's by 2022.

MLS's 18th championship game will be played in frigid temperatures in a quaint state-of-the-art stadium in Kansas City that seats less than 20,000 people in the American Midwest far away from the mainstream media hubs.

With no marquee names such as the Red Bulls' Thierry Henry or Galaxy's Robbie Keane to focus on, the spotlight will instead fall on two teams with contrasting styles.

"My opinion it's going to be one of the best finals played, two of the better teams in MLS," Kansas City defender and U.S. national team member Matt Besler told ESPN. "It doesn't have the big names in the league but that doesn't matter to us.

"It's two very deserving teams, two under the radar soccer cities."

Having finished with a better regular season record, Sporting will enjoy home-field advantage and the rabid support of a soccer-mad city that already hosted the MLS All-Star game and a U.S. men's World Cup qualifier this year.

It will mark the third time Kansas City has played for the MLS championship having won the title in 2000 when the team was known as the Kansas City Wizards and losing in the final four years later.

"This is a team that has figured out how to get it right," praised Garber. "They have figured it out on the field and have convinced us and everybody in the North American soccer community that Kansas City is one of the great soccer towns in North America.

"They have created an environment in that stadium that validates our belief that America has really become a soccer nation."

Back in the championship game for the second time in five seasons, Real will also be chasing their second title having hoisted the giant silver cup in 2009 with a victory over David Beckham and the Galaxy.

While Salt Lake plays a more attractive European style possession game, Kansas City prefers a physical brand of football relying on the league's top defense, led by Besler and fellow national team member midfielder Graham Zusi, that surrendered just 30 goals in 34 matches.

Zusi, who set a career high with six goals this season and Besler, MLS defender of the year in 2012, were both named to the MLS best XI for the second consecutive year on Tuesday, underlining their status as keys to a KC victory.

The Sporting defense will be tested by Real's designated player Alvaro Saborio, a member of Costa Rica's World Cup squad and a lethal finisher who had 12 goals in 16 games for Salt Lake this season.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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