"Five Things" is a season-long series presented by the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center that highlights the top storylines and players to watch ahead of each match. To visit the series archive, click here.
The stakes will rise on Sunday as top-seeded Sporting Kansas City and the eighth-seeded San Jose Earthquakes square off in Western Conference Round One of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs at world-class Children’s Mercy Park.
The win-or-go-home playoff encounter is slated for 3 p.m. CT with national coverage on FS1, FOX Deportes and the FOX Sports app as well as local radio broadcasts on ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM. Additionally, supporters can access the Sporting KC app at 2:45 p.m. CT for an exclusive pregame show with interviews from Sporting players and analysis from broadcast trio Nate Bukaty, Jacob Peterson and Carter Augustine. The hosts will also hear from a special Sporting guest in the lead-up to Sunday's showdown.
Sunday’s highly anticipated showdown features a pair of teams that finished the regular season in impressive fashion. Sporting went 6-1-1 down the stretch to finish atop the conference standings for the second time in three seasons, while San Jose ended 6-3-1 top grab the eighth and final postseason berth in the West.
As both sides prepare for their biggest game of the year, we examine five major storylines surrounding the contest in the space below.
1. Win or Go Home
It’s that simple, folks. The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs will feature single-elimination matches exclusively, hosted by the higher-seeded club. If the match is tied after 90 minutes, an additional 30 minutes of extra time will be played in its entirety. If the sides remain deadlocked, a penalty shootout will decide the victor.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing for Sporting. The club has won six of its last seven penalty shootouts in single-elimination matches and goalkeeper Tim Melia boasts a perfect 5-0 record in shootouts throughout his professional career.
2. Hot at the Right Time
Since the start of October, no MLS club has more wins (six), points (19), shutouts (four) or a lower goals against average (0.63) than Sporting Kansas City. Manager Peter Vermes’ men have hit full stride in the autumn months, earning their fourth first-place conference finish in the last 10 seasons to secure homefield advantage in the West.
Melia has posted three straight clean sheets and carries a 270-minute shutout streak into the playoffs. The backline has seen strong performances from the likes of Roberto Puncec, Winston Reid, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey and Amadou Dia. The midfield mix has featured a blend of savvy veterans—Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez and Gadi Kinda among them—and skillful youngsters such as the uber-versatile Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernandez and Cam Duke. As for the club’s attack, we’ll get to them in item No. 3.
3. Spread the Wealth
No team boasts a more balanced attack than Sporting Kansas City. They are, after all, the only side in MLS to have five players with five or more goals in the regular season. Kinda, Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell bagged six apiece over the course of 2020, while Khiry Shelton and Erik Hurtado added five each. That’s not to mention the influential contributions of Gerso Fernandes, who has three goals and three assists this year, or the upside of a player like Daniel Salloi who struck three times in two home playoff games in 2018.
Sporting finished the regular season campaign with 1.81 goals per match, the third-highest clip in team history. Those goals have come from a number of different sources, and that scoring-by-committee approach just might work wonders in the playoffs.
4. Know the Foe
As the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes are effectively playing with house money. Few will be expecting them to make a long postseason run, but to dismiss head coach Matias Almeyda’s hard-working side would be a mistake.
San Jose has earned 14 points from losing positions this season, including four come-from-behind wins. Both totals are the highest in MLS. While conceding the first goal can be a death sentence for some teams, the Earthquakes have lost just seven of the 13 matches in which they have fallen behind 1-0. San Jose also leads the league with 12 goals after the 75th minute.
The bad news for the visitors? San Jose conceded a whopping 51 goals over the course of 23 regular season matches, five more than any other team at a rate of 2.22 per game. The Earthquakes hemorrhaged five or more goals on five separate occasions, the most in a single season in MLS history despite the shortened campaign.
San Jose’s biggest danger men are likely to be evergreen striker Chris Wondolowski—Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer who has a team-best seven goals this year—and dynamic winger Cristian Espinoza, whose nine assists are one off the MLS lead.
5. Favorable History
San Jose’s recent ventures to Kansas City haven’t exactly been fruitful. Since August 2004, Sporting have gone 13-1-1 in 15 home matches against the Quakes in all competitions. San Jose are 1-7-1 at Children's Mercy Park, with the lone draw accounting for a 1-1 stalemate in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinals that Sporting won 5-4 on penalties. In the overall series, Sporting are 6-1-2 across the last nine meetings since September 2016.
Sporting has met San Jose twice previously in the MLS Cup Playoffs, taking a 3-2 road loss in the 2003 Western Conference Final and prevailing 3-2 on aggregate in the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals.