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Decision Day is approaching as second-place Sporting Kansas City (17-9-8, 58 points) hosts rival Real Salt Lake (13-14-6, 45 points) at Children’s Mercy Park for the final MLS regular season match of the 2021 campaign. Tickets are available at SeatGeek.com and the game will air live on Bally Sports Kansas City, Bally Sports Midwest, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.
Sunday will be the second clash between the two longtime rivals. RSL took the first contest with a 3-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 1 in the third round of the regular season. Alan Pulido scored Sporting’s lone goal before Damir Kreilach’s goal and Rubio Rubin’s brace gave RSL three points.
Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake will kick off at 5:25 p.m. CT along with five other Western Conference matches as a part of MLS Decision Day. With the top spot in the West still within Sporting’s grasp, a berth in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League up for grabs and Salt Lake just two points back of a playoff spot, a lot hangs in the balance in this consequential match.
1. Scenarios Abound
With 13 matches kicking off Sunday, the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoff bracket will be set Sunday night. Sporting is currently in a tie for second place with the Colorado Rapids, but SKC owns the head-to-head wins tiebreaker. Seattle occupies the top spot by just one point, so Sporting KC still has a chance to finish in first place. That scenario has Sporting KC beating Salt Lake on Sunday and Seattle losing or drawing on the road to the Vancouver Whitecaps. This could also happen with an SKC draw and a Seattle loss if Sporting edges the Sounders by virtue of the goal differential or goals scored tiebreaker.
No matter the result in their match, Sporting would stay in second place and punch their ticket to the Concacaf Champions League if Colorado loses at home to LAFC. If Sporting and Seattle both win Sunday, the Colorado match is inconsequential. The only way for Sporting to fall into third is for Colorado to achieve a better result than SKC—ether a draw and an SKC loss or a win and an SKC draw or loss.
While Sporting is jockeying for seeding, Real Salt Lake is fighting for a spot at the playoff table. After two straight losses, RSL finds itself on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Just two points back of LA Galaxy and three points behind both Vancouver and Minnesota United, Salt Lake is far from eliminated, however.
Simply put, Salt Lake has to beat Sporting on Sunday to reach the postseason. With a loss or draw, they can kiss their MLS Cup aspirations goodbye. But even with a win, they will need to see Vancouver and Minnesota both lose.
With so many variables up in the air, anything can happen on Sunday. There are multiple high-stakes matches as the three teams vying for first place in the West all play teams fighting for their playoff lives. There will be lots of scoreboard watching Sunday, as just one goal could dramatically change the playoff landscape.
2. Rivalry Renewed
It is no secret that Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake do not like each other. The rivalry jumpstarted in 2013 when Sporting KC lifted the MLS Cup in front of a packed Children’s Mercy Park crowd after defeating Real Salt Lake in a 10-round penalty shootout. Since then, the teams have clashed 17 times in the MLS regular season and rematched in the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2018.
In the opening round of the 2018 playoffs, Sporting had a leg up on RSL after earning a 1-1 road draw and bringing a crucial road goal back to Kansas City. Sporting jumped out to an early two-goal lead off the feet of Diego Rubio and Daniel Salloi before Salt Lake halved the deficit with a Sebastian Saucedo goal of his own. Ilie buried a penalty to give Sporting back their two-goal advantage, but that only lasted five minutes as Kreilach scored. RSL had a chance to tie the match and take the aggregate lead thanks to the away goals tiebreaker, but Tim Melia’s heroic goalkeeping kept Sporting ahead before Daniel Salloi confidently scored a no-look goal icing the series.
With past playoff history in the back of their heads and future playoff implications in front of them, these two teams with no love lost and take the pitch Sunday with plenty on the line.
3. Career Years
Sporting Kansas City has scored the third-most goals in a regular season in club history (58) and earned their third-most points in club history (58) heading into Sunday’s match. Multiple individuals have also had career years ahead of Decision Day.
Johnny Russell has set a new career mark with 15 goals. The forward’s eight-match goal streak is a club record and his 40 career goals rank fifth in club regular season history. Daniel Salloi has set new career-highs with 16 goals and eight assists. The Sporting KC Academy product made his Hungarian senior national team debut in 2021 as well.
In the midfield, Gadi Kinda set a new high for assists in a season with eight. He too made his senior national team debut in 2021 and scored in his Israel debut. He has assisted on each of Sporting KC’s last four goals. On the defensive side of the ball, Andreu Fontas has set a new MLS single-season record in the Opta era in touches (3071), passes (2725) and successful passes (2437).
4. Golden Boot in Kansas City?
Sunday’s season finale has more on the line than just postseason standings. Multiple regular season titles including the Golden Boot are still up for grabs. The Sporting RSL game certainly has Golden Boot stakes as three players enter the match within three goals of the 2021 scoring title. While still chasing NYCFC Forward Valentin Castellanos’ 18 goals, Salloi, Russell and Kreilach are within striking distance. With the Eastern Conference kicking off at 2:30 p.m. CT, all three players will know exactly how many goals they need to take home the Golden Boot.
Pacing the trio is the Sporting KC forward Salloi with 16 goals. He needs a brace to tie Castellanos if the midfielder does not score Sunday. Salloi has bagged two braces already this season, so that is not out of the picture. Russell and Kreilach are tied with 15 goals apiece and need a hat-trick to reach the current mark of 18 goals. Russell and Kreilach each have one career hat-trick so both players are more than capable of the feat.
5. RSL Downturn
Real Salt Lake have been regulars in the MLS Cup Playoffs, making the cut 10 times in their first 16 seasons. Now in year 17, they are on the brink of missing the cut for the second straight season. RSL are tied for a league lead with 11 losses in one-goal games. If just two of those one-goal losses were draws, they would be above the playoff line. Two goals separate RSL from competing in the playoffs and watching them from home at the moment. It all comes down to Decision Day for Salt Lake, but their destiny partially lies in the hands of other teams.