Sporting Kansas City (4-1-0, 12 points) clinched progression to the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by 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.
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. CT, Sporting will finish first in Group D and face the third-place finisher from Group B, E or F at 10 p.m. CT 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. CT Tuesday.
A local kickoff time of 9 a.m. (8 a.m. CT) 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, respectively. 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.