Five Things - Nov. 28, 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.

Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs have come and gone with No. 3 seed Sporting Kansas City advancing to face No. 7 seed Real Salt Lake at Children’s Mercy Park. A limited number of tickets for the Western Conference Semifinals are available at SeatGeek.com with the match kicking off at 2 p.m. CT. ABC will broadcast the match in English, while ESPN Deportes will air the contest in Spanish.

Sunday will mark the second conference semifinal meeting in four seasons between the clubs. Real Salt Lake took both meetings against Sporting Kansas City during the 2021 regular season, including a controversial win on Decision Day that we’ll touch on later.

The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs field has been cut from 14 teams to eight. A spot in the Western Conference Finals is on the line in the single-elimination matchup between Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake. 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. Higher Stakes

With the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs switching to a single-elimination format in 2019, the weight of each match exponentially increased. With each passing day, the Audi MLS Cup on Dec. 11 approaches. Whoever wins Sunday secures their spot in the Western Conference Finals and will face the No. 4 seed Portland Timbers.

Sporting advanced last weekend after a superb showing against the Vancouver Whitecaps. With an impressive defensive showing and a shootout win over the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake earned their spot. Thanks to a terrific regular season in which Sporting was just one win away from a club record in one season, they obtained the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Salt Lake snuck into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, giving the homefield advantage to Sporting for Sunday’s match.

Sporting and Salt Lake have developed an intense rivalry over the years. Sporting’s most recent MLS Cup trophy came after defeating RSL in a penalty shootout in 2013. In 2018, Daniel Salloi’s brace helped eliminate RSL from the playoffs. These clubs have frequently clashed with lots on the line, most recently earlier this month on Decision Day.

2. We Meet Again

It certainly is fresh in the minds of Sporting KC fans everywhere. In the regular season finale on Nov. 7, Sporting KC were looking to claim first place in the Western Conference regular season for the second straight year. Salt Lake were fighting for their playoff lives. RSL came out ready to defend and Sporting KC came out ready to attack.

The drama came late in the game as Justen Glad handled the ball in his box, denying Roger Espinoza a scoring opportunity. No handball was given and RSL subsequently scored in the 95th minute, grabbing the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. Sporting left the match feeling robbed of the opportunity and will be looking to avenge the loss on Sunday.

3. Practical, Tactical Brilliance

With the drama of Decision Day behind them, Manager Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City set out to prepare for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the first round of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. With two weeks to prepare for the red-hot Whitecaps, Vermes created a brilliant game plan. All season long, Sporting loved to possess the ball and attack as a unit. Vancouver loved to break from the midfield and counter.

On Saturday, Vermes and Sporting KC forced Vancouver to bring the attack to them, something they were not comfortable doing. Vancouver never settled in despite possessing the ball for over 62% of the match. Sporting won the game 3-1 and outshot Vancouver 12-6 as Vermes’ tactics worked to perfection. With another eight days of rest, Sunday will show what kind of tactics Vermes and Sporting KC bring to the table.

4. Open the Scoring Accounts

In the 3-1 defeat of Vancouver, Sporting KC saw two players open their Audi MLS Cup Playoff scoring accounts and one open his Sporting KC scoring account. Khiry Shelton’s early goal in the 17th minute put Sporting KC on top. The forward chopped the ball into the far post with the inside of his foot, sending the ball one way while his momentum carried him the other way. Right on the brink of halftime,e Nicolas Isimat-Mirin hammered home a loose ball to regain the lead for Sporting. It was the center back’s first goal for Sporting and it could not have come at a better time.

On the other side of the half, the Sporting player with the most playoff experience, Graham Zusi, netted his first career playoff goal with an exclamation point. Zusi was played into space by Salloi and wasted no time, taking one touch before blasting a 30-yard shot into the far corner of the goal. The all-time Sporting KC playoff assist leader iced the match in the 58th minute with emphasis.

5. Catching Form

Interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni and Real Salt Lake come into the Western Conference Semifinals with pep in their step. Their last two matches include two road wins against top-three teams in the Western Conference—the first being the Decision Day match against Sporting, and the second a penalty shootout win on the road against the Seattle Sounders.

Their first playoff match was interesting to say the least. Salt Lake became the first team to not record a shot in an MLS Cup Playoff match and just the third MLS team to ever do so. After facing 21 shots and taking none of their own in 120 minutes of playoff soccer, Salt Lake outlasted Seattle in penalties, winning the shootout 6-5. Real Salt Lake come to Kansas City with confidence, but that is not going to scare Sporting KC.