After defeating Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the first round, Sporting Kansas City will look to continue their run in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs this weekend and take another step toward the third league title in club history.
The next opponent for third-seeded Sporting is a Western Conference Semifinal showdown with No. 7 seed Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. CT with live coverage on ABC, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. A limited number of tickets for the highly anticipated encounter are available at SeatGeek.com.
Exactly three weeks after Sporting and Real Salt Lake faced off on MLS Decision Day, the two rivals will duel again with even more on the line. For the second time in four years Sporting KC and RSL will go to battle in the Western Conference Semifinals with a trip to the Western Conference Final up for grabs.
Salt Lake finished the regular season with a 14-14-6 record as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. After head coach Freddy Juarez left the team for an assistant coaching position with the Seattle Sounders in August, interim manager Pablo Mastroeni took the helm. Mastroeni and RSL exacted their revenge Tuesday night, knocking Seattle out with a 6-5 shootout victory following a scoreless draw. Real Salt Lake snuck into the playoffs following a controversial Decision Day win at Children’s Mercy Park on Nov. 7. They make their return to Kansas City Sunday with way more at stake.
Let’s look at the strengths, weaknesses and key players Real Salt Lake bring into the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
For a team that made the playoffs in the final minutes of the regular season, Real Salt Lake scored a lot of goals. Despite entering the postseason as the No. 7 seed, they scored the third most goals in the conference in 2021. The club ranked second in all of MLS with 46 assists and scored 49 of their 55 goals from inside the box. RSL converted three penalties and no free kicks, meaning most of their goals came from open play. Salt Lake is perfectly fine sitting back and letting opposing teams bring the attack as we saw in their Round One match against Seattle and on MLS Decision Day. But they are still a potent team that likes to get out on the break and catch teams lacking.
Shots on Frame
When Real Salt Lakes gets shots off, they are very good at putting them on target. They placed second in the league with 39% of their shots finding the target. While they placed in the middle of the pack for total shots (including blocks), as mentioned above, they scored the third-most goals in the Western Conference. The RSL attack might not fire as many shots as other teams, but they remain an efficient attack that can score. Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia could be tested a couple of times on Sunday.
Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake are both blessed with dangerous, dynamic duos. Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell combined for 47 total goal contributions, the exact same as the RSL duo of Damir Kreilach and Albert Rusnak. The difference between the pairs is their starting position. Salloi and Russell are both wingers while Rusnak and Kreilach patrol the midfield for RSL. Rusnak missed Salt Lake’s first-round match with Seattle due to a positive COVID test, so his availability for Sunday is up in the air. Despite that, look for Kreilach to dictate play and get forward, leading the attack from the midfield.
HIGHLIGHTS: Sporting KC 3-1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC | November 20, 2021
Real Salt Lake has not had the best 2021 from a defensive standpoint. Their 54 goal concessions are the most of any team in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. RSL’s backline predominantly has consisted of three MLS veterans, headlined by Justen Glad. The defense contributed four goals and 11 assists in the regular season. Look for Sporting KC to attack the RSL backline as Sporting produces most of its offense through the wings. While the backline of RSL is experienced, they have been known to leak goals at times in 2021.
Earlier, we covered the duo that is Rusnak and Kreilach. Aside from them, RSL does not post much of an attacking threat. Forwards Anderson Julio and Rubio Rubin have eight goals apiece, but other than them, no RSL player has more than two goals. Defender Aaron Herrera has 11 assists and is closely followed by none other than Rusnak and Kreilach. When the two star Salt Lake midfielders are not on, the attack tends to falter.
Lack of Chances
On Saturday, Nov. 20, Sporting KC played in MLS’ 7000th all-time match including the MLS is Back Knockout Round. Tuesday night, Real Salt Lake played in the 7004th MLS match. In those 7,000-plus matches, only three teams ever failed to record a shot in a match. Real Salt Lake became the third team to do so, and the first to ever do it in the postseason in their penalty shootout win against Seattle. Salt Lake is more than happy to drop bodies behind the ball and let teams attack them. They are content with minimal chances but that strategy does not always work. Sporting will try to do what Seattle did not and convert their chances, forcing RSL to get out on the attack. A lack of chances could be RSL’s downfall in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Three Players to Watch
Kreilach is the key to Real Salt Lake’s success. The attacking midfielder is their playmaker and goal scorer. He leads the team in goals and is third in assists. His 25 regular-season goal contributions ranked third in MLS. The 32-year-old MLS vet’s stoppage-time game-winner against Sporting Kansas City is the reason RSL are in the playoffs. In his four seasons with Salt Lake, he has two goals and five assists against Sporting KC. RSL will try to run their offense through the middle with Kreilach and Sporting will have to stop him if they want to advance.
Rusnak, Kreilach’s partner in crime, is just as dangerous. He led Salt Lake in assists with 11 and added 11 goals to go along with it. Another man in the middle, Rusnak is the RSL captain and game controller. Due to a positive COVID-19 test, Rusnak was unable to play in the opening round match against Seattle. If he is available for selection Sunday, he will step back into his midfield role and attempt to control the game. He is the other key player Sporting has to keep tabs of at all times during the match.
Twenty-year-old goalkeeper David Ochoa is in his third year in MLS and has already made a name for himself. The keeper is never one to shy away from anything. He loves to play the sweeper-keeper role, leaving his box to deal with any loose balls. He also enjoys playing the bad boy role, stating after the Seattle win, “I enjoy being the villain and I don’t think I’ll ever stop”