Sporting KC in MLS playoff match Sunday in KCK

Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs will feature a pair of MLS originals squaring off on Sunday as top-seeded Sporting Kansas City hosts No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes in a Western Conference battle on Sunday afternoon.

Kickoff at world-class Children’s Mercy Park is slated for 3 p.m. with stadium capacity reduced to 18% and comprehensive health and safety protocols in place.

The contest will be televised nationally on FS1 and FOX Deportes while streaming live on the FOX Sports app. Listeners can also catch the action locally in English on ESPN 94.5 FM and in Spanish on La Grande 1340 AM.

Additionally, supporters can access the Sporting KC app at 2:45 p.m. for an exclusive pregame show with interviews from Sporting players and analysis from broadcast trio NateBukaty, Jacob Peterson and Carter Augustine.

Sporting and San Jose enter the playoffs in strong form, having ended an unprecedented 2020 regular season campaign in strong form.

Led by 12th-year manager Peter Vermes, Sporting went 6-1-1 from the start of October to the end of the season, posting MLS-bests during that stretch in wins (six), points (19), shutouts (four) and lowest goals against average (0.63).

The Earthquakes, meanwhile, went 6-3-1 down the stretch to grab the eighth and final postseason berth in the West under second-year head coach Matias Almeyda.

The stakes on Sunday will be as high as ever, with the winner advancing to the Western Conference semifinals on Dec. 1 or 2 and the loser closing its curtains on 2020.

The 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.

Sporting has notably won six of its last seven penalty shootouts in single-elimination matches and goalkeeper Tim Melia owns a perfect 5-0 record in shootouts throughout his professional career.

As the longest tenured head coach in MLS, Vermes has become the league’s first manager to make nine playoff appearances with a single club. He is also the only coach with four first-place conference finishes over the last decade, during which time Sporting has missed the postseason only once.

Sporting claimed first place in the West after finishing with a 12-6-3 record and 1.86 points per game, the highest clip in the club’s 25-year history.

Confidence runs high for a Sporting outfit that earned three straight clean sheets to end the regular season, paced by Melia’s 270-minute shutout streak.

The backline has seen strong performances recently from the likes of Roberto Puncec, Winston Reid, Andreu Fontas, Jaylin Lindsey and Amadou Dia, while the midfield mix has featured a blend of savvy veterans — Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez and Gadi Kinda among them — and skillful youngsters such as versatile 18-year-old Gianluca Busio and fellow Academy product.

No team boasts a more balanced attack than Sporting Kansas City, as it is the only MLS club to have five players with at least five goals in 2020.

Gadi Kinda, Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell have bagged six apiece to split Golden Boot honors, while Khiry Shelton and Erik Hurtado have added five each. Sporting finished the regular season with 1.81 goals per match, the third-highest clip in team history behind 2018 and 1996.

As the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes atoned for a turbulent August and September by catching stride down the stretch and habitually erasing deficits. San Jose has earned 14 points from losing positions this season, including four come-from-behind wins. Both totals are the highest in MLS.

The Earthquakes, who have lost just seven of the 13 matches in which they have fallen behind 1-0, also lead the league with 12 goals after the 75th minute.

In order to make a sustained playoff run, Almeyda’s side will have to shore up a leaky defense that allowed 51 goals in 23 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 going forward 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.

Recent ventures to Kansas City have been futile for the visiting Earthquakes. Since August 2004, Sporting has gone 13-1-1 in 15 home matches against the Quakes across all competitions. San Jose is 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.

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.

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