Sporting travels to Portland Saturday in playoff push

The final month of the MLS regular season begins in earnest Saturday night as two teams immediately below the Western Conference playoff line go head-to-head at Providence Park in Portland.

Ninth-place Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) will put their three-game winning streak on the line against the eighth-place Portland Timbers (12-11-4, 40 points) in a showdown rife with postseason implications.

FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO will provide three hours of live coverage on Saturday beginning at 9:30 p.m. CT. Listeners in the Kansas City area can also catch the action live on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and La Grande 1340 AM (Spanish), while viewers outside the FOX Sports Midwest footprint can stream the game on ESPN Plus.

A win on Saturday would bolster the playoff hopes for both teams as the decisive stretch run of the regular season commences.

LAFC is the runaway leader at the summit, but just four points separate second place (Seattle on 46) from seventh (LA Galaxy on 42) in the crowded Western Conference standings.

Portland (40 points) has the opportunity to steal away seventh with a win, while Sporting (37 points) can climb within two points of seventh should it emerge victorious.

Led by 11th-year manager Peter Vermes, the longest-tenured head coach in MLS, Sporting just might be catching fire at the right time. The club has notched its first three-game winning streak of the year after sinking San Jose, Minnesota and Houston on home soil — all by a one-goal margin.

Center back Graham Smith and left back Luis Martins have both emerged during the three-game surge, joining veterans Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to bolster an in-form backline.

Between the posts, Tim Melia has notched consecutive clean sheets and enters the weekend with 45 regular season shutouts — one shy of passing Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history.

Renovations to Providence Park during the first half of 2019 has resulted in a home-heavy end to Portland’s MLS schedule.

The Timbers, who will play six of their final seven fixtures at Providence Park, suffered back-to-back home defeats before claiming a narrow 1-0 triumph over Orlando City SC last Saturday. Playmaking talisman Diego Valeri bagged a brilliant game-winner in the 16th minute to give the hosts three precious points and assuage lingering concerns among the Timbers faithful.

At age 33, Valeri remains one of the most prolific attacking players in MLS. He is the league’s only active player with 75 goals and 75 assists in the regular season and has continued to shine in 2019, leading MLS in chances created while placing second with 15 assists.

Fellow Argentine Sebastian Blanco provides game-changing class in the midfield — evidenced by his five game-winning assists — while striker Brian Fernandez has given Portland another dangerous weapon up top. Fernandez has 10 goals in 15 MLS appearances since joining the club in May and owns an 8-4-1 record as a starter.

Despite the magnitude of Saturday’s match, neither side will be at full strength.

Sporting is set to travel without six players — including their top three scorers — due to the arrival of FIFA’s international window. Felipe Gutierrez (10 goals), Johnny Russell (nine goals) and Krisztian Nemeth (seven goals) face national team obligations alongside U.S. U-17 midfielder Gianluca Busio and defenders Botond Barath and Nico Hasler.

The hobbled Timbers face a similar situation with up to nine absentees, namely Larrys Mabiala (injury), Julio Cascante (injury), Modo Jadama (injury), Zarek Valentin (injury), Marco Farfan (injury), Cristhian Paredes (injury), Jeff Attinella (injury), Andres Flores (international duty) and Renzo Zambrano (international duty).

Sporting and Portland have squared off in several hot-blooded battles over the last five years. The Timbers notably edged Sporting 3-2 on aggregate in the 2018 Western Conference Championship, prevailing in a five-goal thriller at Children’s Mercy Park last November after the sides settled for a scoreless first leg in Portland.

Sporting has enjoyed plenty of regular season success at Providence Park, where they own a 4-2-2 record and shutouts in five of their eight regular season visits. Melia has been particularly outstanding at the stadium, where he has allowed just one goal in six MLS appearances (including playoffs). Since 2014, Sporting owns a 5-1-4 record in the regular season series with eight shutouts.

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Russell’s goal propels Sporting KC to 1-0 win over Houston

Johnny Russell’s first-half header propelled Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) to a crucial 1-0 victory over rivals Houston Dynamo (9-15-4, 31 points) on Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

The result gives ninth-place Sporting its first three-game winning streak of 2019 and keeps the club within striking distance of the seventh and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Goalkeeper Tim Melia made five saves en route to his 45th career regular season shutout – tying Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history – as the hosts claimed a momentous win in the bid for a ninth consecutive postseason berth while stretching Houston’s winless skid to seven matches.

Sporting manager Peter Vermes fielded an unchanged lineup from last week’s 2-1 defeat of Minnesota United FC, awarding veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza his 250th career start for the club in all competitions. Gerso Fernandes later entered as a second-half substitute, becoming the 44th player to log 100 appearances in a Sporting uniform.

The hosts wasted little time dictating tempo and landed the first punch on 12 minutes when Russell nodded home his ninth goal of the MLS campaign. The Scottish international’s free kick into a crowded penalty area was cleared only as far as Felipe Gutierrez, who clipped a ball over the top for Graham Smith to chase near the endline.

The center back sent an inch-perfect delivery back across the face of goal for Russell to head past Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis, queuing celebrations across the stadium as Smith recorded his first MLS assist.

Russell was the dangerman once more in the 19th minute, finding Graham Zusi on the overlap along the right channel. His low-driven pass found Daniel Salloi on the doorstep, but the forward’s first-time effort caromed off the top of the crossbar and out of play.

Melia was called into action twice on the half-hour mark as Houston gradually gained a foothold of their own. He dropped low to palm away a Memo Rodriguez strike from the left corner of the box before reacting quickly at the near post to parry Alberth Elis’ deflected cross behind for a corner kick.

Salloi threatened again in the 34th minute, catching Russell’s free kick cleanly on the volley and forcing Willis into a reflex stop. A gripping sequence then unfolded on the stroke of intermission as both sides went close to scoring.

Sporting left back Luis Martins nearly caught Willis out of positions with a searching ball from the wing, but the goalkeeper secured possession and picked out Elis with a booming punt downfield. Elis surge goalward pulled the trigger on the breakaway, but Melia produced a save to keep his clean sheet intact.

The visitors improved in the second half but lacked the requisite incision to break down Sporting’s defense. Vermes’ men remained dangerous in spurts as well, and Willis did well to thwart Erik Hurtado after Russell had skipped past Kiki Struna and Maynor Figueroa before neatly laying it off to his teammate.

Houston thought it had conjured an equalizer in the 73rd minute when Elis dashed down the right channel and squared to Christian Ramirez for a point-blank finish, but the offside flag had been raised on Elis.

The final half-hour of an increasingly cagey match saw referee Alan Kelly brandish four Houston yellow cards as a few egregious challenges popped up across the pitch. Sporting ultimately held their slim advantage to the final whistle, leaving the Dynamo’s playoff aspirations on life support.

Sporting will battle for a fourth straight triumph next Saturday when they travel to face the eighth-place Portland Timbers in yet another all-important Western Conference clash. Kickoff at Providence Park in Portland is slated for 9:30 p.m. with live coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO.

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Houston visits Sporting KC on Saturday

Two teams desperate for points in the Western Conference playoff race will square off Saturday when Sporting Kansas City (9-11-7, 34 points) plays host to rival Houston Dynamo (9-14-4, 31 points) at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. showdown remain available at SeatGeek.com and the first 7,500 fans through the stadium gates will receive a free Sporting-branded mobile phone.

FOX Sports Kansas City Plus, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO will provide three hours of live coverage on Saturday beginning at 7 p.m., while local radio broadcasts will air live on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM (Spanish). Supporters can also access the Sporting KC app for additional in-game updates.

Currently six points shy of the seventh and final playoff spot in the West, Sporting claimed a pivotal 1-0 home win over Minnesota United FC last Thursday to bolster their hopes of extending an impressive postseason streak that began in 2011.

The contest was decided in the 88th minute when forward Erik Hurtado ran onto a Johnny Russell through ball and slotted home for his second game-winning goal of the month.

Saturday presents Sporting the opportunity to notch its first three-game winning streak of 2019, having opened the August homestand with a 2-1 defeat of the San Jose Earthquakes on Aug. 17.

Manager Peter Vermes’ men are three points behind the eighth-place Portland Timbers (11-11-4, 37 points) and seventh-place FC Dallas (11-10-7, 40 points) -opponents who will account for three of Sporting’s final seven regular season games. A remarkably tight Western Conference table sees just three points separate second place from seventh, with Portland and Sporting both aiming to hop above the playoff line.

While Sporting has enjoyed a recent uptick in form, Houston is reeling amid a brutal summertime drought.

The Dynamo suffered a 5-1 setback to FC Dallas in the Texas Derby last Sunday, pushing their winless skid to six matches and dropping their MLS record since May 25 to 2-12-2. Houston’s two wins over the last three months -as well as their two shutouts over the course of 2019 – are tied for the fewest in the league.

An intriguing plot twist this weekend will see a former Kansas City great set out to dash his former club’s playoff hopes.

Houston interim head coach and former Sporting midfielder Davy Arnaud took the helm earlier this month after Wilmer Cabrera was relieved of his duties.

Arnaud has served as a Dynamo assistant since 2017 and has been tasked with keeping the team afloat over the final month of the season. The Texas native plied his trade in Kansas City from 2002-2011, amassing 52 goals and 40 assists in 273 competitive appearances as one of the club’s most accomplished players.

Sporting and Houston most recently met on June 1 at BBVA Compass Stadium, scrapping out a 1-1 draw after trading second-half goals. Yohan Croizet fired the visitors ahead near the hour-mark, but Honduran winger Alberth Elis conjured a quick response to split the points. Elis has seven goals and a team-best eight assists this season, while fellow forward Mauro Manotas leads the side with 11 goals.

Familiarity reigns in this particular series as Sporting and Houston prepare to lock horns for the 32nd time in all competitions since the start of 2012. Vermes’ side holds the narrowest of edges during that stretch, posting an 11-10-10 record.

Houston’s last visit to Children’s Mercy Park in June 2018 served up a five-goal thriller in which Sporting overturned a 2-0 halftime deficit to prevail 3-2. Manotas struck twice before the break, but Homegrown forward Daniel Salloi orchestrated a wild comeback with a goal and two assists.

Neither team will have the worry of a lengthy injury list on Saturday. Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric is likely to miss out with a concussion, having played just five matches this season, while Sporting’s backup keeper Adrian Zendejas will be sidelined with a back ailment.

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