Ike Opara’s 52nd-minute header helped Sporting Kansas City (15-8-7, 52 points) to a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake (13-11-7, 46 points) on Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park. Rookie forward Corey Baird had fired the visitors ahead in the ninth minute before Opara restored parity early in the second half, effectively splitting the points in a tense battle between Western Conference rivals.
The result keeps second-place Sporting KC two points behind Western Conference leaders FC Dallas with four regular season games still to play. Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, holds a two-point cushion over the LA Galaxy for the sixth and last playoff spot heading into the decisive month of October.
Sporting KC will aim to secure a club-record eighth straight playoff berth with a win or draw next Saturday as Children’s Mercy Park welcomes international soccer icon Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy (12-11-8, 44 points) at 7:30 p.m. CT. A limited number of tickets for the highly anticipated showdown are available via SeatGeek.com or by calling 888-4KC-GOAL.
Manager Peter Vermes fielded an unchanged lineup from a 2-0 loss at the Philadelphia Union last weekend, but the Sporting KC bench featured a special newcomer for Sunday’s nationally televised clash on FS1. Kalen Ricketson, an 18-year-old battling osteosarcoma, had his wish to become a Sporting KC player granted by The Victory Project as the philanthropic organization hosted its annual Childhood Cancer Awareness Match.
Real Salt Lake drew first blood after weathering an initial wave of Sporting KC pressure, striking through Baird on a lethal counter attack. Jefferson Savarino settled a long pass over the top and split the backline with an incisive delivery to Baird, who slotted low past goalkeeper Tim Melia for the rookie’s seventh goal of 2018.
The hosts went agonizingly close to drawing level in the 18th minute when captain Matt Besler steered a Felipe Gutierrez free kick across the face of goal. Krisztian Nemeth was lurking at the back post to apply the finishing touch, but his close-range effort caromed off the outside of the post and gave RSL a major reprieve.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, making his MLS-record 482nd regular season appearance, bailed out RSL in the 22nd minute with a sprawling save to deny Johnny Russell, who had raced onto Roger Espinoza’s brilliant through ball. Another half-chance would fall to Sporting KC just before halftime, but Rimando punched clear after a deflected Gutierrez shot almost looped into the path of Nemeth.
Rimando produced further heroics three minutes into the second half. Sporting KC defender Graham Zusi settled a cross-field diagonal ball from Gutierrez and unleashed a low cross from the right side that took a wicked deflection goalward, but Rimando leapt at full stretch to palm the ball over the bar.
A deserved equalizer arrived in the 52nd minute when Russell’s quickly taken corner kick from the right flag connected with Opara from eight yards out. The reigning MLS Defender of the Year nodded powerfully into the corner of the net for his third goal of the season and his third goal in as many appearances against Real Salt Lake. Russell, who picked up his ninth MLS assist on the play, has now assisted in all three meetings with RSL this season.
Momentum had swung firmly in favor of Sporting KC, but RSL saw a fleeting chance go begging in the 58th minute when Melia turned away Savarino’s long-distance sledgehammer. Head coach Mike Petke’s side would go much closer in the 73rd minute, however, when Baird culminated another devastating counter with a chip shot over Melia that caromed off the crossbar.
Sporting KC threatened twice in the late stages, only for Rimando to intervene on both occasions. Second-half substitute Diego Rubio slipped a lovely pass in behind the RSL defense for Gerso Fernandes in the 81st minute, but the winger’s first touch allowed the RSL goalkeeper to race off his line and extinguish the danger. Six minutes later, Zusi’s clever cutback found Rubio unmarked near the penalty spot, but the Chilean’s side-footed attempt through traffic was blocked by Rimando’s extended left foot.
2018 MLS Regular Season
Game 30 of 34
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
Weather: 80 degrees and cloudy
|Sporting Kansas City (15-8-7, 52 points)||0||1||1|
|Real Salt Lake (13-11-7, 46 points)||1||0||1|
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler (C), Seth Sinovic; Roger Espinoza (Yohan Croizet 66), Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez; Johnny Russell (Daniel Salloi 78), Krisztian Nemeth (Diego Rubio 71), Gerso Fernandes
Subs Not Used: Eric Dick, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey, Gianluca Busio, Kalen Ricketson
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Brooks Lennon, Nick Besler (Shawn Barry 93+), Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera; Damir Kreilach (Albert Rusnak 61), Sunny, Kyle Beckerman (C); Jefferson Savarino, Joao Plata (Nedum Onuoha 88), Corey Baird
Subs Not Used: Andrew Putna, Luke Mulholland, Sebastian Saucedo, Luis Silva
RSL -- Corey Baird 7 (Jefferson Savarino 11) 9
SKC -- Ike Opara 3 (Johnny Russell 9) 52
SKC -- Felipe Gutierrez (yellow card; persistent infringement) 74
|Shots on Goal||6||3|
Referee: Kevin Stott
Assistant Referee: Jason White
Assistant Referee: Jeremy Hanson
Fourth Official: Marcos DeOliveira
VAR: Edvin Jurisevic