Top-seeded Sporting Kansas City opened the club's 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs campaign with a 1-1 road result at No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake on Sunday in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. Chilean international Diego Rubio scored the game-tying goal 39 seconds after entering the match as a second-half substitute in the 60th minute to send the home-and-away series back to Kansas City on level terms.
The decisive second leg between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake on Sunday, Nov. 11 at Children's Mercy Park will take place at 2 p.m. CT and will be nationally televised on ESPN, Major League Soccer announced tonight. A limited number of tickets are available via SeatGeek.com.
Playing in altitude amidst chilly conditions at Rio Tinto Stadium, Sporting Kansas City started strong on Sunday and nearly opened the scoring in the ninth minute with the first shot of the match. Khiry Shelton's right-footed effort from inside the penalty area forced a diving save from Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The U.S. Men's National Team veteran, now in the 13th postseason of his 19-year MLS career, was called into action again in the 24th minute and did well to push Felipe Gutierrez's long-range strike over the crossbar. The ensuing corner fell to Johnny Russell, who clipped the ball to the six-yard box where Roger Espinoza rose to meet the cross but directed his header off target.
On the opposite end, Sporting Kansas City -- with Yohan Croizet making his first start at left back in place of the suspended Seth Sinovic -- held the hosts to a single shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes as Tim Melia calmly collected Jefferson Savarino's attempt from 25 yards out in the 22nd minute.
The scoreless first half -- Sporting Kansas City's sixth straight in the postseason dating back to the 2013 MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake -- gave way to an entertaining start to the second half.
In the 51st minute, Real Salt Lake Designated Player Albert Rusnak combined with Damir Kreilach on a give-and-go at the top of the penalty area to set up a half volley for the breakthrough goal in skillful fashion. The lead would be shortlived however as Sporting Kansas City responded through Rubio just nine minutes later.
Fresh off the bench, the 25-year-old Rubio covered 50 yards to apply pressure on three different Real Salt Lake players and put himself in prime position to recover a loose ball in the attacking third of the field when Gutierrez deflected a clearance by Rimando. Rubio took two touches to his right and let loose a perfectly-placed strike into the bottom corner of the net for an emphatic equalizer and potentially pivotal away goal in the series.
Of Rubio's career-best nine goals this season, five have come in substitute appearances which is most of any player in MLS and comes as part of a season-long, team-wide trend. Sporting Kansas City has set a club record with 15 goals scored by substitutes across all competition this season, including a League-leading 13 goals off the bench in MLS matches.
Rubio also becomes only the second player in team history to score a game-tying goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs as a substitute and the first since Matt McKeon did so in the club's postseason debut back in 1996.
Riding the shift in momentum, Sporting Kansas City soon threatened to take the lead on multiple occasions against a Real Salt Lake side playing on two days rest after producing a Knockout Round upset at LAFC on Thursday night.
Russell tested Rimando in the 64th minute with a dipping shot on target, then darted down the right wing six minutes later to set up Ilie Sanchez with a first-time effort that lifted high of the intended destination. Russell would next deliver a teasing service into the box on a free kick in the 74th minute that resulted in a pair of scoring chances, the first disrupted by a superb save from Rimando to deny Graham Zusi and the second intercepted by a block from Chinedum Onuoha to keep out Espinoza's follow-up.
Melia, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and a former back-up to Rimando, ensured the scoreline would stand at 1-1 with the game's final save in the 87th minute to confidently claim a curling right-footed strike from Aaron Herrera.
Next Sunday's second leg, the fifth meeting of the season between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, will raise the stakes with a berth in the Western Conference Championship on the line. A victory for either side will send the winner on to play for the conference crown, while a second straight draw would bring the away goals tiebreaker into play.
Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Semifinals (Leg 1 of 2)
Rio Tinto Stadium | Sandy, Utah
Weather: 50 degrees and cloudy
|Sporting KC (0-0-1, No. 1 seed)||0||1||1|
|Real Salt Lake (0-1-1, No. 6 seed)||0||1||1|
Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Ike Opara, Matt Besler (c), Yohan Croizet; Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez; Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton (Diego Rubio 60), Daniel Salloi (Gerso Fernandes 83)
Subs Not Used: Adrian Zendejas, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey, Gianluca Busio, Krisztian Nemeth
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Brooks Lennon, Marcelo Silva (Justen Glad 41), Chinedum Onuoha, Aaron Herrera; Sunny, Kyle Beckerman (c), Jefferson Savarino (Sebastian Saucedo 87), Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata (Corey Baird 77); Damir Kreilach
Subs Not Used: Andrew Putna, Danilo Acosta, Luis Silva, Nick Besler
RSL - Albert Rusnak 1 (Damir Kreilach 1) 51'
SKC - Diego Rubio 1 (Felipe Gutierrez 1) 60'
RSL - Albert Rusnak (caution; unsporting behavior) 26'
RSL - Kyle Beckerman (caution; unsporting behavior) 72'
SKC - Diego Rubio (caution; unsporting behavior) 76'
|Shots on Goal||6||3|
Referee: Baldomero Toledo
Assistant Referee: Gianni Facchini
Assistant Referee: Felisha Mariscal
Fourth Official: Alan Kelly
VAR: Dave Gantar