For the first time since match play was suspended March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Soccer action will resume July 8 with the historic and unprecedented MLS is Back Tournament. This one-of-a-kind competition will see all 26 clubs descend on ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, marking the emphatic return of men's professional soccer in the United States after a near four-month hiatus.
As the opening match approaches, SportingKC.com is presenting a 20-day preview of the World-Cup style tournament from June 18 through July 7 called Countdown to MLS is Back presented by Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center.
Sporting Kansas City will kick off their Group D campaign on July 12 against rivals Minnesota United FC before facing the Colorado Rapids on July 17 and Real Salt Lake on July 22, with all three games shown live nationally on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/MLSisBack.
Needless to say, there is absolutely no love lost between Sporting and RSL. The budding rivalry has its true origins in MLS Cup 2013, which saw Manager Peter Vermes' men prevail in an epic penalty kick shootout at Children's Mercy Park. Sporting joined the Western Conference two years later, and since then the sides have traded haymakers in one of the league's most entertaining head-to-head series.
These small-market clubs have punched above their weight for the better part of a decade, with Sporting winning four major trophies since 2013 and RSL consistently reaching the playoffs. It's only appropriate that they continue their rivalry in the storybook setting of Disney World as the MLS is Back Tournament beckons.
More often than not, seasons in which a head coach departs three-fourths of the way through the campaign aren't ones to remember. That actually wasn't the case in 2019 for Real Salt Lake, who parted ways with Mike Petke last August. Freddy Juarez took the helm and RSL didn't miss much of a beat, finishing third in the Western Conference and defeating the Portland Timbers in the first round of the playoffs before losing to eventual champion Seattle Sounders FC.
Playmaking talisman Albert Rusnak's 10 goals and five assists were both team-highs, but the attack was well-balanced. Sam Johnson (nine goals), Damir Kreilach (six goals) and Corey Baird (five goals) all made notable contributions and are back with the team in 2020. Midfield stalwart Kyle Beckerman completed his 20th MLS season, while legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando hung up the boots after a 20-year career of his own.
RSL opened the current season with two ties, scrapping to a scoreless draw at Orlando City SC before Kreilach scored in second-half stoppage time to rescue a 1-1 result at home against the New York Red Bulls. American-born striker Giuseppe Rossi, a high-profile newcomer and former Italy international who signed in late February, made his MLS debut versus Orlando after spending the first 14 years of his career in England, Italy and Spain. In the middle of the park, Nick Besler—the younger brother of Sporting captain Matt Besler—earned consecutive starts.
With Zac MacMath between the posts and stout center back Nedum Onuoha anchoring the backline, RSL are out to prove that they can once again accomplish more with less. Their breakfast-time Group D finale against Sporting, slated for 8 a.m. CT on July 22, could have a whole lot riding on it.
Three players to watch
Midfielder Nick Besler: The Kansas native officially began his MLS career in 2015, joining the Portland Timbers as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, but he didn't make his league debut until over three years later. After playing regularly at the USL Championship level for Portland Timbers 2 and Real Monarchs, Besler broke into RSL's first team in 2018. After two years as an occasional starter, Besler is looking to stamp his name on a central midfield role permanently and follow in his brother's footsteps as a title-winner.
Midfielder Albert Rusnak: The Slovakian's track record in MLS speaks for itself. Rusnak has amassed 27 goals and 26 assists in 92 appearances, good for a goal or an assist every two games. He consistently ranks among the MLS leaders in chances created and will more than likely be pulling the strings for RSL next month in Florida.
Forward Giuseppe Rossi: Once touted as the future of the United States Men's National Team, Rossi instead chose to represent Italy at the international level. He landed 30 caps for Italy from 2008-2014 and amassed almost 150 professional goals before making his move stateside this winter. Nearing the end of his career at age 33, the New Jersey native will be eager to make a splash in MLS.
“Salt Lake is always a tough team. They still have a strong, experienced team in that regard. They’re also a group that, for me, they always find ways to battle and fight and scrape and get results. That’s always a dangerous team to play against.”
Everyone knows about MLS Cup 2013, but Sporting and RSL have taken part in several other memorable battles over the last several seasons. Vermes' side also prevailed in the 2018 Western Conference Semifinals, winning a 4-2 thriller in the second leg at Children's Mercy Park to claim a 5-3 aggregate victory. In the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Sporting ousted RSL in the 2015 semifinals en route to the championship and eliminated their Utah rivals three years later in the Round of 32.
While Sporting has held a decided upper hand in knockout-style competitions, RSL has enjoyed a great run in the regular season series. Sporting is just 1-8-5 in its last 14 regular season fixtures against Salt Lake, which includes a pair of losses last year.
Recent #SKCvRSL meetings
- Regular season record vs. RSL 9-13-8 (36 GF, 41 GA)
- All competitions record vs. RSL: 12-14-10 (48 GF, 48 GA)
|04//29/2017||W 3-0||Home||MLS regular season|
|07/22/2017||T 1-1||Away||MLS regular season|
|10/22/2017||L 1-2||Away||MLS regular season|
|06/06/2018||W 2-0||Away||Open Cup 4th Round|
|07/04/2018||L 2-4||Away||MLS regular season|
|09/30/2018||T 1-1||Home||MLS regular season|
|11/04/2018||T 1-1||Away||MLS Cup Playoffs|
|11/11/2018||W 4-2||Home||MLS Cup Playoffs|
|06/29/2019||L 0-2||Away||MLS regular season|
|08/10/2019||L 1-2||Home||MLS regular season|