Sporting to play tournament match tonight in Florida

After navigating a three-game group stage at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World in Florida, Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver Whitecaps FC are set for a Round of 16 battle at 10 p.m. Sunday in the win-or-go-home MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage.

Sunday’s contest will be televised live nationally on FS1, FOX Deportes and TUDN and streamed live via the FOX Sports app. Fans can catch local radio calls on Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM and access the Sporting KC app for additional in-game updates and exclusive offers.

Led by 12th-year head coach Peter Vermes, Sporting notched consecutive wins over the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake to finish atop Group D of the MLS is Back Tournament and vault to the summit of the Western Conference regular season standings with 12 points and a 4-1-0 record.

Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat of RSL, which produced two Alan Pulido assists and goals from Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes, ensured Sporting a spot in the Round of 16 and ultimately a first-place finish in the group after Minnesota United FC drew Colorado later that night.

Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos, who previously coached Sporting Kansas City II during the club’s inaugural USL Championship campaign in 2016, is now in his second season at the Vancouver helm and saw his side book a knockout stage berth in dramatic fashion on Thursday.

Needing a win in their group stage finale, the Whitecaps struck twice in a rain-delayed second half through Yordy Reyna and Cristian Dajome to advance as the third-place team in Group B.

The MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage will feature 16 clubs contending for a coveted championship and the 2021 Concacaf Champions League berth that comes with it. The winning team will also receive a sizable share of a $1.1 million prize pool.

Unlike group stage fixtures, matches in the knockout phase will not count toward the regular season standings, and games tied after 90 minutes will go straight to penalty kicks. There will be no caution accumulation policy for players who receive yellow cards for the remainder of the competition.

Sporting last faced the Whitecaps on opening day of the 2020 MLS campaign in Vancouver. Pulido, Gadi Kinda and Erik Hurtado bagged goals to pace a 3-1 triumph at BC Place on Feb. 29 as Sporting improved to 10-3-4 in the regular season series.

Vermes’ side is 4-0-1 in its last five meetings against Vancouver since 2018, scoring 17 goals and allowing just three. The winner of Sunday’s showdown will progress to the quarterfinals and meet either the Philadelphia Union or the New England Revolution at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 30.

With 13 goals in 2020, Sporting boasts the second-best scoring attack in MLS and the most goals through the first five matches of a regular season in club history. Pulido’s seven combined goals (three) and assists (four) are the second-most in the league, and his active run of five straight appearances with a goal or an assist is the longest in MLS.

Fellow forward Khiry Shelton has also struck three times in 2020, already eclipsing his 2018 total for the club, while Russell and Gerso will aim to build off of their goal-scoring performances on Wednesday. Pulido and Shelton are notably the only MLS players with at least three goals, five chances created and 30 duels won this season.

On the opposite end of the pitch, goalkeeper Tim Melia has quietly pieced together his own excellent start to the campaign. He leads MLS with a 316-minute active shutout streak dating back to Feb. 29 when Vancouver’s Jake Nerwinski found the back of the net in the first half.

Melia boasts a 3-0-0 record this year with an .875 save percentage and a 0.25 goals against average.

Vancouver responded to its season-opening loss against Sporting by claiming an impressive 1-0 road win over the LA Galaxy on March 7.

At the MLS is Back Tournament, the Whitecaps had the San Jose Earthquakes in a 3-1 hole on July 15 — Dajome and standout left back Ali Adnan scored on either side of halftime — only to concede three times in the final half-hour to lose 4-3. After a 3-0 setback to Seattle last Sunday, Vancouver ousted Chicago to move to 2-3-0 on the year.

The Whitecaps have reached the knockout phase despite the absence of three high-profile attackers in Lucas Cavallini, Toisant Ricketts and Fredy Montero, all of whom have missed the MLS is Back Tournament for personal reasons.

Cavallini was a marquee offseason addition from Liga MX club Puebla, Ricketts is a longtime Canadian international, and Montero has amassed 68 goals and 43 assists during his storied MLS career.

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Sporting advances to knockout stage with 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake

Sporting Kansas City (4-1-0, 12 points) clinched progression to the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage Audi with a 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake (1-1-3, 6 points) on Wednesday morning at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World in Florida.

Forward Johnny Russell struck just 49 seconds into the game before substitute Gerso Fernandes sealed the result with a superb 86th-minute curler, vaulting Sporting to the summit of the provisional Western Conference standings and guaranteeing the side a top-two finish in Group D of the MLS is Back Tournament.

Mexican striker Alan Pulido assisted both goals and is the only MLS player with at least three goals and three assists this season.

If Minnesota United FC fails to beat the Colorado Rapids tonight at 9:30 p.m., Sporting will finish first in Group D and face the third-place finisher from Group B, E or F at 10 p.m. on Sunday in the Round of 16.

If Minnesota defeats Colorado, Sporting will place second and meet Supporters’ Shield leaders Columbus Crew SC in the Round of 16 at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

A local kickoff time of 9 a.m. (8 a.m. Central) was the earliest start to a competitive match in Sporting’s 25-year history as manager Peter Vermes made three changes to his starting lineup from Friday’s 3-2 triumph against the Rapids.

Goalkeeper Tim Melia retained his place between the posts while 18-year-old midfielder Gianluca Busio and 24-year-old center back Graham Smith relieved Gadi Kinda and Matt Besler. With Besler on the substitute’s bench, Pulido served as Sporting’s captain for the first time.

A historically early start produced a historically early goal from Russell. After RSL failed to clear Busio’s in-swinging corner kick, Smith and Ilie Sanchez both had shot attempts blocked before the ball caromed off Pulido and fell invitingly to Russell, whose right-footed effort near the penalty spot took a slight deflection on its way into the back of the net.

Russell’s goal marked the fifth time that Sporting has struck in the first minute of a regular season match — the first such occasion since April 2013 — and snapped Real Salt Lake’s 257-minute shutout streak.

The Scottish international opened his scoring account for the 2020 campaign and Pulido extended his impressive run of scoring or assisting in each of his first five appearances this year.

RSL entered Wednesday with an 8-1-5 record in the previous 14 regular season meetings between the clubs, but head coach Freddy Juarez’s men were unable to breach Sporting’s backline in a game that saw Tim Melia push his shutout streak to 316 minutes dating back to Feb. 29, the longest by an MLS goalkeeper this season.

RSL’s Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach both had opportunities to level terms in the first half, but Beckerman’s low drive was blocked by a sliding Roberto Puncec and Melia had little trouble corralling Kreilach’s attempt.

A composed second-half display allowed Sporting to remain in control. RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath was forced into action on 51 minutes when he raced off his line to prevent Busio’s clever through ball from finding Khiry Shelton on the left side of the box.

Ten minutes later, substitute and Sporting Kansas City Academy product Felipe Hernandez did wonderfully to beat his marker along the right wing and advance goalward before fizzing in a low cross that deflected high into the air. Pulido caught it cleanly with a volley that was blocked through traffic, much to the relief of a retreating RSL defense.

Having entered the contest in the 84th minute, Gerso bagged his first goal of the campaign just two minutes later to secure all three points.

Pulido advanced into the attacking third and floated a diagonal ball to the feet of Gerso, who cut centrally from the right flank and unfurled a stunner into the far left corner to double Sporting’s cushion.

The play gave Pulido his fourth assist of the year, and his seven combined goals and assists rank second in MLS. Referee Fotis Bazakos drew an end to proceedings shortly thereafter as Vermes’ men claimed their first regular season win over RSL since April 2017.

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Sporting KC plays Real Salt Lake on Wednesday

Two Western Conference foes will write the next chapter of their fierce rivalry on Wednesday morning when Sporting Kansas City (3-1-0, 9 points) and Real Salt Lake (1-0-3, 6 points) meet in a pivotal MLS is Back Tournament group stage finale at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World in Florida.

The earliest competitive match in Sporting’s 25-year history will kick off at 8 a.m. with national coverage on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app as well as local radio broadcasts on ESPN 94.5 FM, 1510 AM and La Grande 1340 AM. FOX Sports Kansas City and FOX Sports GO will also provide supplemental coverage of the high-stakes encounter, with Sporting KC Live presented by Michelob Ultra running from 7-8 a.m. followed by a 30-minute postgame show beginning at 10 a.m.

Wednesday’s Group D showdown features a pair of teams aiming to seal qualification to the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage.

Sporting, which currently occupies third place in the four-team group with a 1-1-0 record, can secure a Round of 16 birth with a win or a draw.

Three points against RSL would see manager Peter Vermes’ men finish first or second in the group, while a tie would result in a second- or third-place finish.

With a result, Sporting will advance as either a top-two finisher in Group D or one of the four best third-place finishers across the six groups. A loss would leave Sporting’s fate in the hands of results outside of Group D.

After suffering a last-gasp 2-1 loss to Minnesota United FC on July 12, Sporting responded with a wild 3-2 comeback victory over the Colorado Rapids last Friday.

Forwards Alan Pulido and Khiry Shelton extended their strong starts to the campaign with second-half strikes before veteran defender Graham Zusi decided the contest in the 91st minute, his deflected effort looping into the back of the net as he became the second player in club history, alongside Preki, to record 100 combined goals (29) and assists (71) in MLS play.

Last week’s win lifted Sporting within a point of Supporters’ Shield leaders Minnesota and Columbus Crew SC as Pulido and Shelton continued to spearhead the team’s attack.

The 29-year-old Pulido (3 goals, 2 assists) has become the first player in Sporting history to tally a goal or an assist in his first four regular season appearances for the club, while Shelton has struck in three consecutive games for the first time in his six-year professional career.

Vermes’ side ranks second in MLS with 11 goals through four games and boasts a plus-6 goal differential, tied for the second-best mark in the league.

While Sporting’s recent success has been predicated on an in-form attack, RSL has leveraged a stingy defense en route to an unbeaten start. The Utah outfit has conceded just once in four games, tied for the fewest in MLS, and their 257-minute active shutout streak is the longest in the league this season.

Goalkeeper Zac MacMath is tied for the MLS lead with three clean sheets, thanks in part to sound backline performances from defenders Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Marcelo Silva and Donny Toia.

Further up the field, RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach has bagged two of RSL’s three goals this season. Corey Baird has yet to find the back of the net in 2020 but has experienced notable success against Sporting, notching four goals in four previous regular season appearances against the club.

Elsewhere, 21-year MLS veteran Kyle Beckerman has split midfield playing time with Nick Besler, the younger brother of Sporting captain Matt Besler.

Sporting and RSL share a rich head-to-head history over the last decade, highlighted by an unforgettable meeting in MLS Cup 2013 at Children’s Mercy Park.

Sporting prevailed in a 10-round penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw through regulation, landing the first of several blows to RSL in knockout-style competitions.

Vermes’ men also ousted the Claret and Cobalt in the two-legged 2018 Western Conference Semifinals as well as the 2015 and 2018 editions of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

League results, however, have favored RSL, who own an 8-1-5 record in the last 14 regular season meetings since 2014.

On the injury front, RSL talisman Albert Rusnak is likely to miss Wednesday’s match with a hip injury suffered in Friday’s scoreless draw against Minnesota. The Slovakian is one of four MLS players with at least 25 goals and 25 assists since 2017 and ranks among the league’s most prolific chance creators.

Sporting’s only absentees are defender Andreu Fontas — who remains in Kansas City recovering from a quad strain — and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, who will miss the rest of the season after undergoing successful knee surgery last month.

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