Preview: Sporting KC to Battle RSL in Home Playoff Game Sunday
World-class Children's Mercy Park will host its first postseason match in nearly five years when top-seeded Sporting Kansas City and No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake square off Sunday at 2 p.m. CT in the decisive second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. A limited number of tickets for the highly anticipated showdown-a rematch of the epic 2013 MLS Cup won by Sporting KC on home soil-remain available at SeatGeek.com.
Sunday's contest will be televised nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, while local radio broadcasts will air on ESPN 94.5 FM and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM. Viewers can catch a live stream via the WatchESPN app and receive additional in-game updates courtesy of Sporting KC Uphoria, which will offer fans a free box of Oreo cookies at Kansas City area Price Chopper locations from Sunday to Tuesday.
Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake enter the weekend tied 1-1 on aggregate after battling to a stalemate in last Sunday's first leg at Rio Tinto Stadium. RSL's talismanic midfielder Albert Rusnak opened the scoring on 51 minutes with a superb side volley, but Sporting KC forward Diego Rubio bagged a 60th-minute equalizer just 38 seconds after entering the game for his MLS-leading fifth goal as a substitute in 2018.
The first-leg result leaves everything to play for Sunday as a pair of fierce rivals look to secure passage to the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. Led by MLS Coach of the Year candidate Peter Vermes, Sporting KC can advance with a win or a scoreless draw. RSL, meanwhile, can progress with a victory or a draw involving four or more total goals (2-2, 3-3, etc.). Another 1-1 tie would force two 15-minute periods of extra time in which the away goals tiebreaker no longer counts. If still deadlocked, a penalty shootout will decide which team advances to face the No. 5 seed Portland Timbers in the two-legged conference championship, scheduled for Nov. 25 and 29.
A capacity crowd is expected on Sunday at Children's Mercy Park, the same site of the 2013 MLS Cup that saw Sporting KC oust Real Salt Lake in a 10-round penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw through extra time. Vermes' side was 10-2-5 at home this year and 18-8-8 overall, ascending to first place in the West while setting single-season club records for goals (65), goal difference (+25), assists (69) and shots (583). Homegrown winger Daniel Salloi led the side with 11 league goals, while Scottish international Johnny Russell became the fourth player in team history to notch 10 goals and 10 assists in the same MLS season.
In addition to setting offensive records, Sporting KC has remained staunch defensively. Their 40 goals allowed were the third-fewest during the regular season as goalkeeper Tim Melia finished with 13 shutouts, second-most in MLS. Right back Graham Zusi was arguably the league's most effective two-way player, playing every minute of all 34 MLS matches to go with two goals and seven assists.
Anchored by center back pairing Matt Besler and Ike Opara, the Sporting KC defense is likely to be bolstered Sunday by the return of left back Seth Sinovic, who missed the first leg in Utah due to a red card suspension.
Led by second-year head coach Mike Petke, Real Salt Lake will be without Rusnak on Sunday after the Slovakian international picked up his second yellow card of the postseason last weekend against Sporting KC. The playmaker has amassed 11 goals and seven assists in 2018, but RSL have posted an impressive 4-0-1 MLS record without Rusnak in the lineup this season. Much like Sporting KC, Petke's squad wields balance and depth in attack: RSL had five players with at least seven league goals in 2018.
Crowned MLS Cup champions in 2009, RSL went just 3-11-3 on the road this year but claimed a momentous 3-2 away win over LAFC in the single-elimination Knockout Round on Nov. 1. Damir Kreilach scored twice in that match and leads the side with 14 MLS goals, having joined RSL from German outfit Union Berlin in February.
Sunday will mark the fifth time Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake have locked horns this season. Vermes' men prevailed 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round on June 6 at Rio Tinto Stadium before suffering a 4-2 regular-season defeat at the same venue four weeks later. The sides then scrapped to a 1-1 stalemate on Sept. 30 at Children's Mercy Park, with MLS Rookie of the Year Corey Baird giving RSL an early lead before Opara nodded Sporting KC level in the 52nd minute.
In last weekend's first-leg draw, Sporting KC were held to a season-low 33.4-percent possession but outshot RSL 12-10 and put six shots on target to RSL's three. Sporting KC now return to the friendly confines of Children's Mercy Park, where they have lost just four of their last 50 home games in all competitions (31-4-15) dating back to June of 2016. Furthermore, Kansas City boasts a 14-2-4 home record in the postseason, with their lone defeats coming in 1997 and 2011.
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