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With 16 straight days of group stage action in the rearview mirror, soccer fanatics will now be treated to the thrills of the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi. For Group D winners Sporting Kansas City, that means a Round of 16 clash with Group B third-place finishers Vancouver Whitecaps FC at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World. Kickoff is set for 10 p.m. CT on Sunday with live coverage on FS1, FOX Deportes, TUDN, the FOX Sports app, Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM.
Now that the 16-team bracket is set, the MLS is Back Tournament format becomes increasingly simple to understand: win and advance, lose and go home. As the stakes of the competition rise with the sizzling temperatures in Central Florida, here's what you must know about Sunday's showdown.
1. Rules of the Knockout Rounds
Group stage matches in the MLS is Back Tournament counted toward the regular season standings, and Sporting took advantage by winning two of three games to remain atop the Western Conference table. It's a different story in the knockout phase, as matches will not count toward league play. If contests finish tied after 90 minutes, clubs go straight to penalty kicks and extra time will not be played. An added benefit for players is the fact that there will be no yellow card accumulation policy for the knockout stage.
The winner of Sunday's match will advance to face either the Philadelphia Union or New England Revolution in the quarterfinals next Thursday.
- Round of 16 vs. Vancouver: Sunday, July 26 at 10 p.m. CT (FS1)
- Potential Quarterfinal: Thursday, July 30 at 7 p.m. CT (ESPN)
- Potential Semifinal: Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. CT (FS1)
- Potential Final: Tuesday, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. CT (ESPN)
2. A Rematch of Opening Day
Sporting last faced the Whitecaps on opening day of the 2020 MLS campaign in Vancouver. Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda and Erik Hurtado scored goals to pace a 3-1 triumph at BC Place as Sporting improved to 10-3-4 in the regular season series. Manager Peter Vermes' men are 4-0-1 in their last five meetings against Vancouver, scoring 17 goals and allowing just three. Sporting will hope the series keeps trending in that direction when the sides take the pitch on Sunday night.
3. In-form Attack
Sporting's 13 goals are the second-most in MLS and the most through the first five matches of a regular season in club history. Alan Pulido's seven combined goals (three) and assists (four) are the second-most in the league, and his active run of five straight appearances with a goal or an assist is the longest in MLS this season. Fellow forward Khiry Shelton has bagged three goals in 2020, already eclipsing his 2018 total for the club, while the likes of Johnny Russell, Gerso Fernandes and Erik Hurtado have also found the back of the net. Pulido and Shelton are notably the only MLS players with at least three goals, five chances created and 30 duels won this season.
4. Melia Magic
As impressive as Sporting has been going forward, goalkeeper Tim Melia has quietly pieced together his own excellent start to the campaign. He leads MLS with a 316-minute active shutout streak dating back to Feb. 29 when Vancouver's Jake Nerwinski found the back of the net in the first half. He boasts a 3-0-0 record this season with a save percentage of 87.5% and a 0.25 goals against average.
With the possibility of penalty kicks looming on Sunday, don't forget about Melia's penalty-saving exploits. Since the start of 2016, he has saved a remarkable 10 of the 21 penalties he has faced in the MLS regular season. No other goalkeeper has more than five penalty saves during that time.
5. Don't Sleep on the Caps
First of all, don't physically fall asleep. The 10 p.m. CT start time certainly falls on the opposite end of the spectrum as Sporting's group stage finale against Real Salt Lake, which kicked off at 8 a.m. CT. In fact, four days after playing their earliest competitive match in club history, Sporting will play their latest of all time. That's right, the 11 p.m. local time kickoff in Florida is the team's latest scheduled start to a game ever.
Secondly, don't sleep on the Whitecaps. Head coach Marc Dos Santos' side responded to their season-opening loss against Sporting by claiming an impressive 1-0 road win over the LA Galaxy on March 7. At the MLS is Back Tournament, the Caps had San Jose in a 3-1 hole before the Earthquakes rallied to win late. Vancouver then bounced back from a shutout loss to Seattle by posting a multi-goal win over Chicago Fire FC on the final day of group stage play, which was exactly the result it needed to reach the knockout phase.
The likes of forward Cristian Dajome (two goals in the tournament), defender Ali Adnan (one goal and two assists this season) and midfield difference-maker Inbeom Hwang make Vancouver an undeniably dangerous outfit heading into the Round of 16.