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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Sporting comes from behind to win 3-2 over Colorado

Three second-half goals lifted Sporting Kansas City (3-1-0, 9 points) to a thrilling 3-2 comeback victory over the nine-man Colorado Rapids (2-2-0, 6 points) in a Friday night classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Walt Disney World.

Facing a 1-0 halftime deficit after an early Kellyn Acosta strike, Sporting surged ahead with goals from in-form attackers Khiry Shelton and Alan Pulido.

The shorthanded Rapids, who saw Danny Wilson and Jack Price receive straight red cards during the final half-hour, restored parity in the 84th minute through substitute Jonathan Lewis. But veteran defender Graham Zusi notched his first goal since April 2018 with 91 minutes on the clock to give Sporting a wild and much-needed win in the historic MLS is Back Tournament.

The pivotal result puts Sporting squarely in contention for a top-two finish in Group D going into Wednesday’s group stage finale against rivals Real Salt Lake. The top two teams in each of the tournament’s six groups, as well as the four best third-place finishers, will progress to the Knockout Stage.

With goalkeeper Tim Melia serving a red card suspension, 26-year-old Richard Sanchez stepped between the posts for his first Sporting Kansas City start and was called to action within two minutes, dropping low to smother Acosta’s long-range effort from beyond the penalty area.

Not long later, however, Acosta found the back of the net with a curling, left-footed belter near the top of the box to finish off an incisive Colorado move involving Diego Rubio, Nicolas Benezet and Cole Bassett.

Having conceded the opening goal for the first time this season, Sporting gradually gained a foothold and almost drew level at the 15-minute mark.

Ilie’s clever ball into space was chased down by Khiry Shelton, who stormed down the right channel and into the box before seeing his near-post effort blocked by Colorado’s debutant goalkeeper William Yarbrough.

On the ensuing corner kick, Shelton latched onto Johnny Russell’s in-swinging corner kick and put a shot on frame, but Price was stationed on the goal line to head clear and preserve his team’s lead.

Russell, who replaced Gerso Fernandes in Sporting’s starting XI, whipped another teasing corner into the mixer in the 25th minute that fell to Ilie Sanchez, whose bouncing volley deflected off Rubio — a former Sporting striker — and into the thankful mitts of Yarbrough.

An absolute rollercoaster of a second-half burst to life on the hour mark when Wilson wrapped both hands around Shelton and brought him to the turf, denying the Sporting forward an obvious goal scoring opportunity.

Referee Dave Gantar initially brandished a yellow card, but Wilson was sent off upon video review. On the ensuing free kick, Pulido’s stinging strike bent over Colorado’s four-man wall and rattled the woodwork, much to the relief of a helpless Yarbrough.

Undeterred, Sporting found its equalizer in the 65th minute. Afforded space on the left wing, Luis Martins sent a looping cross to the far post that Gadi Kinda controlled and clipped back across the face of goal.

Shelton was on hand to fire home a thunderous volley at a tight angle to mark his third consecutive game with a goal, having bagged Sporting’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota United FC last Sunday.

Later, Zusi’s audacious shot attempt on the right edge of the box ricocheted off the outstretched Rubio and skipped marginally wide of the target, but video review confirmed Rubio to have illegally touched the ball with his hand.

Sporting was awarded a penalty kick, and Pulido made no mistake by slotting low into the left corner past Yarbrough. The 29-year-old Mexican has three goals and two assists in his debut campaign and is the first Sporting player ever to record a goal or an assist in his first four regular season appearances for the club.

The tale went from bad to worse for Colorado moments later, as Price received his marching orders for violent conduct and reduced the Rapids to nine men.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, head coach Robin Fraser’s side grabbed an unlikely equalizer in the 84th minute. Mere seconds after Yarbrough took the ball off Shelton’s feet at one end, Colorado countered as longtime Sporting forward Kei Kamara slipped the ball into the path of Lewis. The 23-year-old tucked his shot low past Sanchez for his second tally of the campaign.

The final plot twist of a cracking encounter came in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. Following a crazy scramble in a crowded penalty area, Zusi tried his luck with a low drive on the edge of the box that took a wicked deflection and looped into the back of the net.

Sporting held its 3-2 advantage past the 100-minute mark before Gantar’s full-time whistle drew an end to the gripping affair.

With three precious points in the bag, Sporting will conclude its group stage campaign Wednesday versus RSL in an 8 a.m. CT kickoff — the earliest start to a competitive match in club history. The game will be shown live on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app.

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