"Five Things" is a season-long series presented by the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center that highlights the top storylines and players to watch ahead of each match. To visit the series archive, click here.
Yet another monumental Western Conference duel looms at high noon on Halloween Sunday as first-place Sporting Kansas City (17-7-7, 58 points) heads north to face eighth-place Minnesota United FC (12-11-9, 45 points) at Allianz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m. CT on ESPN as well as ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app.
Sunday will be the third time these two clubs have met this season. In the first installment, Sporting secured an impressive 0-0 draw after playing a man down for over two-thirds of the match. In the second meeting, Sporting KC shellacked Minnesota 4-0 with goals from Khiry Shelton, Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell and Cam Duke.
With just three matches remaining in Sporting’s MLS regular season and the top spot in the Western Conference currently in hand, the stakes have been raised again.
Here are five things you need to know for Sunday’s showdown in the Twin Cities.
1. Top of the Table
After Seattle Sounders FC lost 3-0 to LAFC on Tuesday, Sporting KC needed a win Wednesday night to overtake first place in the Western Conference. Manager Peter Vermes’ squad delivered in the form of a dominant 2-0 victory in front of a fervent Children’s Mercy Park crowd undeterred by the rainy weather. With all three points collected, Sporting tied Seattle at points with 58 apiece. With both teams tied on points and wins, the tiebreaker shifts to goal differential, in which Sporting holds a +22 to +20 advantage over Seattle.
Now that Sporting holds the top spot in the West, they will look to lock it down in the final three matches of the MLS season. Holding a match in hand over Seattle, Sporting travels to Minnesota looking to get a leg up in points over Seattle. With 58 points in 31 matches played, Sporting KC’s current 1.87 points per match is the highest in club history. Sporting set the club record last season with 1.86 points per match.
2. Even More to Play For
Last Saturday, Sporting clinched a spot in the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Wednesday, they clinched a home playoff match and at least a top three finish in the Western Conference. Sunday presents another clinching scenario. With a win, Sporting can lock up a spot in the 2022 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. This would be Sporting’s first time in the competition since making a run to the semifinals in 2019.
3. Russell Reaches New Heights
With his two-goal performance Wednesday, Johnny Russell continued his incredible goal streak that started on Sept. 11. A month and a half later, Russell has the fifth-longest scoring streak in MLS history and the solo lead for the longest scoring streak in 2021. He is the first player in Sporting Kansas City history to score in eight consecutive regular season matches.
Now with 39 career MLS regular season goals, Russell has surpassed former Colorado Rapids striker John Spencer for most MLS goals by a Scottish player and is tied for fifth all-time in club history. His 69 combined regular season goals since arriving in MLS in 2018 is third in that timespan.
Russell’s performance Wednesday earned him MLS Player of the Week honors, a nod to the MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi and an MLS Goal of the Week nomination for his second strike of the night. The Sporting KC captain will look to keep this impressive form going Sunday against Minnesota.
LONGEST REGULAR SEASON GOAL SCORING STREAKS *
(2021 MLS REGULAR SEASON) *
- 8 matches | Johnny Russell | Sporting Kansas City | Sept. 11 to Oct. 27
- 6 matches | Ola Kamara | D.C. United | July 3 to Aug. 15
- 5 matches | Damir Kreilach | Real Salt Lake | Sept. 18 to Oct. 16
- 5 matches | Gustavo Bou | New England Revolution | May 22 to July 3
- 5 matches | Cristian Arango | LAFC | Aug. 28 to Sept. 19
4. In Good Hands
With Tim Melia serving a one-match suspension, Peter Vermes turned goalkeeping responsibilities over to John Pulskamp on Wednesday night. The 20-year-old was up to task by making two huge saves and leading the entire team from the back. The 2-0 win was Pulskamp’s first MLS clean sheet and made him the youngest goalkeeper to record a shutout in club history, breaking a record held by Garth Lagerwey since 1996. Melia is set to return Sunday in Minnesota, giving Sporting two excellent options at keeper going forward.
5. Loons on the Brink
While Sporting is in a battle for the top spot in the west, Minnesota United is in a fight for the final playoff spot. Currently, Minnesota finds themselves on the outside looking in. While tied with Real Salt Lake at 45 points, Salt Lake holds the overall wins tiebreaker over the Loons and has a match in hand. With two matches left on Minnesota’s schedule, Sunday’s contest is one they know they need points out of.
Minnesota has had a topsy turvy 2021 MLS season. After a slow start, they found themselves in the basement of the West for the first four weeks of the season. They pulled themselves out and climbed as high as fifth and have remained above the playoff line for most of the season but are presently on the outside looking in.