Five Things is a weekly series on SportingKC.com that highlights the top storylines, players to watch and matchday programming ahead of each game throughout the season.
The Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs hang in the balance ahead of Sunday’s decisive second leg between top-seeded Sporting Kansas City and No. 6 seed Real Salt Lake at Children’s Mercy Park. Following a 1-1 first-leg draw in Utah, the rivals will meet again in Kansas City to decide who advances to the conference championship later this month.
A limited number of tickets for Sunday’s showdown, including standing-room only tickets, remain available at SeatGeek.com as Sporting KC and RSL lock horns in a rematch of the 2013 MLS Cup. ESPN and ESPN Deportes will televise the game live nationally, while local radio broadcasts will air on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM (Spanish).
As with any playoff match between teams that don’t really care for each other, the plot lines run thick and the stakes are high. With so much to be excited about this weekend, let’s dive into the five things you absolutely must know about Sunday’s contest.
Nearly five years have passed since Sporting KC last hosted a playoff game at Children’s Mercy Park. On Dec. 7, 2013, Manager Peter Vermes’ side lifted the MLS Cup after sinking RSL in an epic penalty shootout—an unforgettable spectacle that remains the brightest moment in club history.
Sporting KC has endured four heartbreaking knockout-round defeats since then, all away from home. Sunday gives Vermes’ men the opportunity to claim a cathartic victory in front of a fan base that has craved postseason soccer for almost half a decade. Make no mistake: Children’s Mercy Park will be electric, jam-packed and in full voice. This battle between fierce rivals could have no better setting.
2. Finish the Job
Last Sunday’s 1-1 tie at Rio Tinto Stadium saw Albert Rusnak give the hosts a 51st-minute lead before Sporting KC’s Diego Rubio came off the bench and made an instant impact to restore parity. Just 38 seconds after entering in the 60th minute, Rubio fired home from outside the box to give Sporting KC an all-important away goal heading back to Kansas City.
With the first leg done and dusted, both teams know precisely what they must do to advance. Sporting KC can win the series with a victory or a scoreless draw, while RSL can progress with a win or a draw that involves four or more total goals (2-2, 3-3, etc.). If the sides play to another 1-1 stalemate, two 15-minute periods of extra time will be played in which away goals no longer serve as a tiebreaker. If still deadlocked, a penalty shootout will decide the winner.
3. Personnel Changes
As in both clubs are likely to make them. Real Salt Lake will be forced into at least one lineup change because influential midfielder Albert Rusnak is suspended on caution accumulation. The Slovakian has enjoyed a strong campaign in RSL red, notching 11 goals—including a superb side volley in leg one—to go with seven assists. Interestingly enough, RSL are 4-0-1 this season when Rusnak does not play. While his absence is notable, head coach Mike Petke’s side knows how to cope with it.
On the opposite sideline, Sporting KC left back Seth Sinovic served a one-game red card suspension in leg one and will be available for selection on Sunday. Like many of his veteran teammates, Sinovic boasts plenty of big-game experience and has a penchant for playoff heroics. His goal against the New England Revolution in the 2013 conference semifinals is one of the most memorable strikes in Children’s Mercy Park history.
4. Protect This House
Kansas City has been an unwelcoming place for postseason visitors over the years. Sporting KC owns an excellent 14-2-4 home record in the playoffs, with their lone defeats coming in 1997 and 2011. This includes a 4-1-1 mark during the Children’s Mercy Park era. The 2013 MLS Cup goes down in the league records books as a draw, having ended in a 1-1 score after 120 minutes.
5. Tale of the Tape
There are two sides to the coin when looking at recent results between Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake. On one hand, Sporting KC are just 1-6-6 in their last 13 MLS meetings with RSL dating back to 2014. On the other, Sporting KC are 2-0-2 in the last four head-to-head meetings outside of the MLS regular season. That includes the 2013 MLS Cup and two subsequent Open Cup games, the 2015 semifinal at Children’s Mercy Park and this season’s fourth-round clash at Rio Tinto Stadium. Sunday will be the fifth and final time these clubs square off in 2018, as outlined in the table below.
|06/06/2018||W 2-0||Away||Open Cup||SKC: Russell 47', Belmar 74'
|07/04/2018||L 2-4||Away||Regular Season||SKC: Salloi 20', Opara 64'
RSL: Savarino 29', Baird 37', Saucedo 45+1', Silva 90+10'
|09/30/2018||T 1-1||Home||Regular Season||SKC: Opara 52'
RSL: Baird 9'
|11/04/2018||T 1-1||Away||Playoffs||SKC: Rubio 60'
RSL: Rusnak 51'