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The earliest kickoff to a competitive match in club history awaits Wednesday when Sporting Kansas City (3-1-0, 9 points) squares off with Real Salt Lake (1-0-3, 6 points) in the MLS is Back Tournament. The crucial group stage finale at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Walt Disney World is slated for 8 a.m. CT with live coverage on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, the ESPN app, ESPN 94.5 FM, 1510 AM and La Grande 1340 AM.
To no one's surprise, Wednesday's battle carries significant implications as the MLS is Back Tournament enters the final round of group stage action. We jump into everything you need to know about the game in the space below, but before we get started, make sure to set an early alarm on Wednesday morning.
1. A Win or a Draw Will Do
It's a simple situation for Sporting: win or draw, and we're onto the Round of 16. A win over RSL would see Sporting finish first or second in Group D and advance to the knockout rounds as a top-two finisher. A draw would see Sporting finish second or third in the group and progress to the knockout stage as a top-two finisher or one of the four best third-place teams in Groups A through F.
|1||Real Salt Lake||4||2||1||0||1||2||0||2|
|2||Minnesota United FC||4||2||1||0||1||2||1||1|
|3||Sporting Kansas City||3||2||1||1||0||4||4||0|
Tiebreakers: (1) Goal differential, (2) Goals scored, (3) Fewest disciplinary points
RSL currently has pole position in Group D, and even if they were to lose on Wednesday, the Utah side stands a great chance of advancing as one of the four best third-place finishers.
2. Rivalry Renewed
News flash: Sporting and RSL don't like each other very much.
Everyone knows about MLS Cup 2013, but Sporting and RSL have taken part in many other memorable battles over the last several seasons. Manager Peter Vermes' side recently prevailed in the 2018 Western Conference Semifinals, winning a 4-2 thriller in the second leg at Children's Mercy Park to claim a 5-3 aggregate victory. In the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Sporting ousted RSL in the 2015 semifinals en route to the championship and eliminated their Utah rivals three years later in the Round of 32.
While Sporting has held a decided upper hand in knockout-style competitions, RSL has enjoyed a great run in the regular season series. Sporting is just 1-8-5 in its last 14 regular season fixtures against Salt Lake, which includes a pair of losses last year.
3. Productive Pulido
In Sporting's wild 3-2 win over the Colorado Rapids last Friday, Mexican striker Alan Pulido continued his red-hot and historic start to the campaign with a successful penalty kick in the second half. Prior to this season, no Kansas City player had ever scored or assisted in his first three league appearances for the club. Pulido has done so in his first four, amassing three goals and two assists in 352 minutes of action.
Pulido has scored in three of his four Sporting appearances to date and assisted on the club's lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota United FC on July 12. He and teammate Gadi Kinda are two of five MLS players with multiple goals and assists during the 2020 regular season.
4. Shelton Sizzling
Khiry Shelton, Pulido's attacking teammate, has been just as impressive in the early stages of 2020. The versatile forward hammered home a sweet volley in the 65th minute of Friday's victory, marking his third straight game with a goal dating back to Sporting's home opener on March 7. Shelton has three goals in four appearances this year after netting twice in 20 games for the club in 2018.
If Shelton strikes again on Wednesday, he will join Preki, Dom Dwyer, Eddie Johnson and Felipe Gutierrez as the only Sporting players to score in four straight regular season appearances.
5. Salt Lake Stinginess
Under the guidance of second-year head coach Freddy Juarez, RSL has allowed a single goal through four matches this season. That's tied for the fewest in MLS and an indication that Sporting, which ranks second in MLS with 11 goals scored, won't have it easy on Wednesday.
RSL and goalkeeper Zac MacMath are currently amidst a 257-minute shutout streak dating back to March 7, the longest such streak in the league this season. Additionally, RSL's 8.5 shots faced per game are the fewest in MLS. Indeed, the likes of MacMath and defenders Marcelo Silva, Justen Glad, Donny Toia and Aaron Herrera have successfully locked things down in Orlando.