Not for the first time this season, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes recognized that his team needed a spark from off the bench.
And not for the first time this season, forward Diego Rubio delivered that spark emphatically.
The Chilean entered Sunday night’s contest in the 60th minute with his team trailing 1-0 to Real Salt Lake. A mere 38 seconds later, Rubio was celebrating a superb equalizer that ultimately propelled Sporting KC to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The result leaves Sporting KC and RSL on level terms going into this Sunday’s decisive second leg at Children’s Mercy Park—the first MLS playoff match at the stadium since Vermes’ side ousted RSL on penalties in the epic 2013 MLS Cup. A limited number of tickets for the highly anticipated showdown, set to kick off at 2 p.m. CT on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, are now available via SeatGeek.com.
Rubio’s instant impact extended one of the storylines that has come to define Sporting KC in 2018. No other MLS club has received more goals from substitutes this season than Sporting KC’s 13, and no individual player has scored more as a sub than Rubio.
With his expertly taken right-footed curler on Sunday, Rubio bagged his fifth MLS goal from off the bench this season. That’s two more than any other player in the league and tied for third-most during Major League Soccer’s Opta era (2010-present). Of those five, three have served as game-tying goals and one has been a match-winner.
33.4 - @DiegoRubio_ is averaging a goal every 33.4 minutes as a substitute for @SportingKC this season, the second-best rate for a #MLS player with 5+ goals off the bench since 2010 (inc. playoffs). Spark.— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) November 5, 2018
Sunday’s equalizer also carried historical significance, marking just the second time in MLS postseason history that a substitute has scored in the same minute that he entered the game. The first such occurrence came in October 1999 when Chicago Fire halftime substitute Dema Kovalenko scored 54 seconds into the second half.
SUBSTITUTE SCORES IN SAME MINUTE AS ENTERING MATCH
(MLS POSTSEASON HISTORY)
|10/23/1999||Dema Kovalenko||CHI||46th||W 4-0 vs. DAL||Conference semifinals|
|11/04/2018||Diego Rubio||SKC||60th||T 1-1 vs. RSL||Conference semifinals|
In addition, Rubio is 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.
“First off, he is deadly in and around the box when he gets those kinds of opportunities,” Vermes said of Rubio after the match. “The other is, I think he is a little bit of a magnet. We talked about it at halftime: I don’t think we turned them over enough in their half, and we talked about wanting to turn them over in the second half a little bit closer to goal. He comes on and we turned it over right then, he took it and fired away. It’s a great away goal, especially with the way that playoffs are. It’s a big goal. It’s good to get a result here and now go home.”
Sporting KC now have a club-record 15 goals from subs in all competitions, five more than their previous high set in 2002, and it's one of the reasons Vermes is a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year. The Sporting KC boss has repeatedly seen his timely substitutions translate into game-changing moments on the field, and Sunday was no exception. Five substitute goals have turned out to be game-winners, and another four—including Rubio’s strike on Sunday—stood as equalizers.
SPORTING KC SUBSTITUTE GOALS IN 2018
|#||Date||Player||Result||Competition||GWG or GTG|
|1||3/10/2018||Jimmy Medranda||W 4-3 at CHI||Regular Season||Game-tying|
|2||3/24/2018||Diego Rubio||T 2-2 at COL||Regular Season||Game-tying|
|3||04/20/2018||Cristian Lobato||W 6-0 vs. VAN||Regular Season||neither|
|4||05/09/2018||Gerso Fernandes||W 2-0 at ATL||Regular Season||neither|
|5||06/03/2018||Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal||W 4-1 vs. MIN||Regular Season||Game-winning|
|6||06/03/2018||Diego Rubio||W 4-1 vs. MIN||Regular Season||neither|
|7||06/16/2018||Yohan Croizet||W 3-2 vs. DAL||Open Cup||Game-winning|
|8||06/23/2018||Diego Rubio||W 3-2 vs. HOU||Regular Season||Game-tying|
|9||06/23/2018||Khiry Shelton||W 3-2 vs. HOU||Regular Season||Game-winning|
|10||07/18/2018||Yohan Croizet||L 2-4 at HOU||Open Cup||neither|
|11||08/04/2018||Diego Rubio||W 1-0 at HOU||Regular Season||Game-winning|
|12||08/18/2018||Johnny Russell||W 3-0 vs. POR||Regular Season||neither|
|13||08/25/2018||Yohan Croizet||W 2-0 vs. MIN||Regular Season||Game-winning|
|14||10/17/2018||Gianluca Busio||W 4-1 at VAN||Regular Season||neither|
|15||11/04/2018||Diego Rubio||T 1-1 at RSL||MLS Playoffs||Game-tying|
“Diego’s a perfect example of what a teammate should be,” captain Matt Besler said postgame. “Whether he starts or doesn’t start, whether he comes in or doesn’t even make the eighteen. He is always a team-first guy, always focused, so that when he does get his opportunities, he makes the most of them. Tonight was another example. It came quicker than I thought it was going to come; it was probably his first touch of the game, it felt like. It was a really great goal and an excellent finish.”
With a scrappy first-leg draw in the rearview mirror, Sporting KC can advance to the Western Conference Championship of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs with either a win or a scoreless tie this Sunday. A victory over RSL would see Vermes’ men advance on aggregate, while a 0-0 tie would give Sporting KC the away goals tiebreaker. Conversely, a draw involving four or more total goals (2-2, 3-3, etc.) would give the away goals tiebreaker to RSL.
Should Sporting KC and RSL play to another 1-1 stalemate on Sunday, two 15-minute periods of extra time will be played in their entirety with away goals no longer serving as a tiebreaker. If still deadlocked after extra time, a penalty shootout will decide the winner.