Five Things - Sporting vs. Vancouver - Nov. 20, 2021

"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.

With the regular season in the rearview mirror, the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are fast approaching as Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7, 58 points) hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps FC (12-9-13, 49 points) at Children’s Mercy Park. Tickets for the Round One battle are available at SeatGeek.com with the 4 p.m. CT matchup airing nationally on Univision and TUDN as well as locally on Bally Sports Kansas City and Bally Sports Midwest Plus.

Saturday will mark the first-ever meeting in the playoffs between the sides, but they are certainly no strangers to each other, going toe to toe twice already in 2021. Sporting got the better of the Whitecaps 3-0 on May 16 at Children’s Mercy Park with a goal from Daniel Salloi and a brace from Alan Pulido. Vancouver would take the second meeting 2-1 on Oct. 17 at BC Place in Vancouver.

The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs follow a single-elimination format, so every single moment is a chance for glory or anguish. Here are five storylines to keep in mind as Sporting begins its push for a third MLS Cup title in the club’s storied history.

1. High Stakes

With the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs switching to a single-elimination format in 2019, the weight of each match exponentially increased. Instead of the old format with both teams hosting a match and the aggregate score being the deciding factor, only 90 minutes separate each team from either advancing in the playoffs or their season ending.

Thanks to a terrific regular season in which they scored the second-most goals in MLS (58), Sporting will host the opening round of the playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park. As per usual, Children’s Mercy Park and the Blue Hell proved to be advantageous for Sporting as they posted a 9-3-5 record at home. Vancouver has struggled on the road, winning only two of 17 away games. The Whitecaps did manage to eke out 10 draws on the road, but a stalemate will not be possible on Saturday.

2. Not So Different After All

On the surface, Sporting and Vancouver are very different teams. For one, Vancouver spent much of 2021 below the playoff line and even found themselves in last place for a brief stint. Sporting was always near the top of the table and enjoyed some time at the summit of the West. Sporting placed second in MLS in possession at 55.2% while Vancouver placed near the bottom at 46.1%. Vancouver has a combined total of 10 playoff starts within their active roster compared to Sporting’s 68.

While there certainly are some glaring differences, Sporting and the Whitecaps also share some stark similarities. For one, both teams have Scotsmen playing major roles for their side. Johnny Russell was Sporting’s Offensive Player of the Year with 15 goals and eight assists as the team’s captain, while Ryan Gauld led the Whitecaps with six assists.

Sporting earned 19 points from a losing position in the regular season, second only to Vancouver’s 22 points from a losing position. Both teams boasted impressive home records as well, with Vancouver earning 32 of their 48 points at home. The clubs have different tactics—that much is for certain—but both teams have the same goal in mind: lifting the MLS Cup trophy on Dec. 11.

3. Coming at You from All Angles

All season long, Sporting Kansas City has had a lethal front three. As previously mentioned, Manager Peter Vermes’ side scored the second-most goals in MLS, led by Salloi’s 16 goals. The Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate’s top-notch performance in 2021 was complimented by Russell’s career year in which he broke the record for most career MLS goals by a Scottish-born player. Combine those two with Pulido potentially returning from injury and Khiry Shelton’s versatile play up top, and you have one of the most potent attacks in Sporting history.

On the opposite side of the pitch, center back Andreu Fontas led MLS in goals added, while outside backs Luis Martins and Graham Zusi continually joined the attack by combining for nine assists. In the midfield, Gadi Kinda contributed five goals and tied the team lead in assists with eight. Ilie Sanchez, the Spanish Swiss army knife, played both on the backline and in his traditional No. 6 role, but no matter where he was, he cycled the ball through the channels and controlled the flow of the match. Sporting is a formidable attacking outfit with weapons scattered all over the field.

4. Something to Prove

All season long, Sporting have been out to prove themselves. They are about to play in their 10th Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 11 seasons, but despite their consistent success, Sporting frequently gets small-market treatment from observers across the country.

The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are the perfect chance for Sporting to put all of that to rest. It is the chance for Vermes to cement his legacy as one of the top coaches in North American soccer history. It is also the chance for Tim Melia, Roger Espinoza and Zusi to cement their status as Sporting Legends.

5. Vancouver in Form

Vancouver enters Saturday’s match on an absolute tear. After finding themselves near last place in August, they made the decision to part ways with head coach Marc Dos Santos. In stepped Italian manager Sartini, who helped right the ship. Vancouver has only lost two matches since July and closed out the year with six straight results, one of which a 2-1 victory over Sporting KC. With a 1-1 draw against Seattle Sounders FC on Decision Day, Vancouver punched their ticket to the playoffs. Everything is at stake as the plucky Whitecaps head to the heartland to take on a menacing Sporting Kansas City side in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.