Preview: First-Place Sporting KC Visits Philadelphia Union on Sunday
Sitting atop the Western Conference with wins in six of their last seven matches, Sporting Kansas City (15-7-6, 51 points) will continue their playoff pursuit Sunday when the club visits the Philadelphia Union (13-12-4, 43 points) for a noon CT showdown at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania.
The cross-conference clash will air live nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes with a live stream available on WatchESPN, while listeners can catch local radio broadcasts on Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM. In addition, The Final Whistle postgame show will air immediately after the match on 810 WHB.
All supporters are welcome to the official watch party for Sunday's contest at No Other Pub in the Kansas City Power & Light District (1370 Grand Blvd.). No Other Pub will open at 11 a.m. CT and specials will begin at 11:30, including $4 Bud Light drafts and an all-you-can-eat buffet with either bottomless domestic draft beers ($30 per person) or sodas ($20 per person).
Two teams who have lost just once in their last seven matches will lock horns this weekend as Sporting KC return to the venue where they hoisted the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title. Manager Peter Vermes' men own a one-point lead at the top of the West and will face a Philadelphia side that boasts a club-record 13 regular-season wins in 2018.
Sporting KC enters Week 30 with the chance to clinch a club-record eighth straight postseason berth, needing a win over Philadelphia plus help from Atlanta, Minnesota and second-place FC Dallas. The team will punch its ticket to the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs if:
Sporting KC beats Philadelphia on Sunday, AND
Atlanta United FC beats or ties Real Salt Lake on Saturday (6 p.m. CT), AND
Minnesota United FC beats or ties the Portland Timbers on Saturday (7 p.m. CT), AND
FC Dallas beats or ties Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Sunday (6 p.m. CT)
Forward Gerso Fernandes was the star of the show in Sporting KC's 5-1 road win over the San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday, becoming the third player in club history to record two goals and two assists in an MLS match. Felipe Gutierrez, Ike Opara and Krisztian Nemeth also found the back of the net as Sporting KC bagged five goals in an MLS away game for the first time since April 2000.
With 54 goals through 28 games, Sporting KC are averaging 1.93 goals per game and remain on pace to break the team record for most goals in a regular season. That record stands at 61, set in the inaugural 1996 MLS campaign, meaning Sporting KC need seven goals over their final six games to tie the mark. Entering the weekend, Sporting KC are the only side to have four players with at least seven MLS goals in 2018: Johnny Russell (eight), Diego Rubio (eight), Daniel Salloi (seven) and Felipe Gutierrez (seven).
Philadelphia atoned for a 4-1 home loss to the Montreal Impact last Saturday by posting a gargantuan 1-0 away win over the Sounders on Wednesday, snapping Seattle's historic nine-game winning streak. Fafa Picault slotted home in second-half stoppage time to move level with Cory Burke for the team lead on eight MLS goals.
Picault and Burke form part of a balanced Union attack that also features former Sporting KC striker C.J. Sapong (four goals) and Ilsinho (five goals). Head coach Jim Curtin wields a formidable midfield, as well, with the likes of U.S. international Alejandro Bedoya (two goals, four assists), Haris Medunjanin (two goals, six assists) and Czech playmaker Borek Dockal, who has five goals and an MLS-best 15 assists this season.
A crowded fixture list adds a layer of complexion for the Union, who will travel to face the Houston Dynamo in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final next Wednesday. With just three days separating Sunday's battle and the all-important Open Cup tilt, Curtin must decide whether to rest multiple starters this weekend. Philadelphia will be making their third Open Cup Final appearance in five seasons, having lost the championship on home soil in 2014 and 2015 to Seattle and Sporting KC, respectively.
Two Sporting KC leaders are on the brink of major milestones. Vermes has amassed 130 regular season wins at the helm, one shy of passing Frank Yallop for sole possession of fifth place in the all-time MLS charts. Meanwhile, veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza could make his 250th competitive appearance for the club. The Honduran would be the seventh player in Kansas City history to reach that landmark, joining teammates Matt Besler (295) and Graham Zusi (285) as well as current assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin (291), Davy Arnaud (273), Nick Garcia (273) and Preki (254).
Sporting KC lead the head-to-head series with a 6-5-6 record in all competitions, but have just one win in their last seven matchups with Philadelphia since 2014. The most recent meeting saw the sides play to a 1-1 draw in July 2017 at Children's Mercy Park, with Rubio and since-departed Union midfielder Roland Alberg trading second-half goals.
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