MLS Cup bracket has opened up, but Sporting KC must first beat stubborn Real Salt Lake

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·3 min read
Nick Tre. Smith
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Less than a week ago it seemed unfeasible that the Western Conference path to the MLS Cup final would run through Kansas City.

After all, Sporting Kansas City fell to the No. 3 seed on the final day of the regular season behind a surging Colorado Rapids and the ever-dangerous Seattle Sounders, who claimed the one and two seed, respectively.

A home game in the first round against the Vancouver Whitecaps, in which KC won 3-1, was all that many Kansas City fans could hope before Sporting hit the road for the rest of the playoffs.

Then chaos ensued.

The top-seeded Rapids fell to the fourth-seeded Portland Timbers on Thanksgiving thanks to a last-minute winner from the Timbers. Two days earlier, Real Salt Lake ground out a 0-0 tie and won on penalties over Seattle to set up a date with Sporting KC in the Western Conference semifinals.

All of a sudden, the West runs through Children’s Mercy Park. Instead of potential trips to the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, Kansas City now has the opportunity to host a conference semifinal game and perhaps the conference final, too, against Portland.

But before dreaming about hosting a conference final game, first up for KC is No. 7 Real Salt Lake at 2 p.m. Sunday.

“We can’t look ahead, there’s nothing to look ahead to,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said Friday. “The only thing we can do is deal with the game ahead of us which is against Salt Lake and that’s where our head is at, that’s what we’re looking at and everything else is, frankly, irrelevant to us.”

Real Salt Lake travels to Children’s Mercy Park as the lowest-seeded team remaining in the MLS Cup Playoffs on either side of the bracket. They also had Kansas City’s number this year.

Kansas City lost 10 games out of its 34 in the regular season with two of those coming at the hands of Real Salt Lake: A 3-1 loss in Utah in week three and a 1-0 loss in Kansas City on Decision Day offer stark reminders of the danger that Salt Lake poses.

“They’re a good team, they’re a very good team,” Vermes said. “... We know that they beat us twice this year and so yeah, difficult match and difficult opponent, and it’s a new game and we’ve got to get prepared for it.”

The 1-0 result on Decision Day will most likely be the blueprint that fans can expect to see again on Sunday: A stout Salt Lake defense that doesn’t give up much and a counter-attack that can strike quickly.

In Salt Lake’s first-round game against Seattle, RSL didn’t manage a single shot but fended off 21 attempts from the Sounders before beating them 6-5 on penalties.

“We all watched the game and the one mistake we all saw was Seattle didn’t score a goal,” Sporting KC winger Daniel Salloi said. “That’s going to be a very important thing for us, to break their defense.”

Sunday’s game offers a chance to write the next chapter in the ever-growing playoff rivalry between the two clubs. Kansas City defeated Salt Lake most famously in the 2013 MLS Cup final at Children’s Mercy Park as well as in the 2018 conference semifinals by a score of 5-3 on aggregate.

It’s a rivalry that’s felt heavily between the fans but put somewhat aside by the players and coaching staff.

“I think what there is we just wind up playing some very good opponents and the games wind up being very tough and they’re battles, and it’s usually two teams wanting to win,” Vermes said. “You wind up having two teams that are similar and battling, I think that’s what it comes down to and this game will be the same thing.”

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