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Preview: Do-or-die for RSL in home clash against SKC

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RSL will host Sporting Kansas City in the final game of the regular season, hoping for a big win and some help from other teams to catapult them into the last playoff spot.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Los Angeles Galaxy Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

This is it. It’s come down to the very last game of the regular season, and Real Salt Lake finds themselves in a battle with two other teams for the last playoff spot in the west. Sunday’s match-up against Sporting Kansas City — along with results from two other games — will decide whether RSL will be participating in the playoffs, or watching them on TV from home.

First and foremost, let’s go over the scenarios that would see RSL make their 9th playoff appearance in the last 10 years. By now, you’re probably pretty familiar with these, but just for those who need a refresher, here are the possible outcomes from this Sunday’s game against Kansas City:

  • If RSL wins: SJ loss/draw, DAL loss/draw; RSL advances
  • If RSL draws: SJ loss, DAL loss; RSL advances
  • If RSL loses: RSL is out
  • If SJ or DAL win: RSL is out

That’s pretty much it. An entire season of striving for the playoffs reduced down to one game where RSL has to get a result, and both San Jose and FC Dallas have to drop points. If either of those teams win, RSL’s season is over regardless of their result. Unfortunately, those teams are playing two of the worst teams in the west; San Jose will host eighth-place Minnesota United, while FC Dallas host the last-place LA Galaxy.

Real Salt Lake

Record: 12-15-6 (42 points)
Table: 8th place (west), 14th place (overall)
Points per game: 1.27 (14th in MLS)
Most goals: Joao Plata (7), Yura Movsisyan (7), Albert Rusnak (7)
Most assists: Albert Rusnak (13) *T-5th in MLS
Clean sheets: 9 (Rimando 8, Van Oekel 1)

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, let’s be honest. RSL had a clear shot at controlling their own playoff destiny, and all they had to do was beat or draw ninth-place Colorado last week on the road. If that had happened, then a win against Kansas City would do the trick regardless of any other game results. Since somehow out of 30 shots, not even one found the back of the net, here we are relying on other teams to lose so we can have a shot at squeaking in at the last second.

Crazier things have happened, and it’s still very much a possibility.

Looking ahead to Sunday, though, the stats bode well for RSL in general. Sporting has been abysmal on the road this year, going 2-7-7 and scoring only nine goals outside the confines of Children’s Mercy Park. Their offense hasn’t been the most impressive or dangerous this season, either, scoring only 39 goals overall while RSL have put away 47.

To top it off, RSL is riding a four-game winning streak at home, outscoring the visiting teams 12-2 with some commanding wins, including a 4-0 clobbering of San Jose and a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids back in August.

It also looks as if RSL will be without their stalwart right-back Tony Beltran, who came out of the game in the 24th minute in Colorado with a knee injury. While nobody can completely fill Tony’s shoes, Mike Petke has options in Demar Phillips and Chris Wingert, both of which would be a capable replacement in the season finale. In the case that Petke chooses to start Phillips on the left over Danny Acosta, then we can expect Wingert to fill in on that right side.

RSL will also have to make do without their speedy winger Jefferson Savarino again, who will still be expected to miss Sunday’s match with his ankle sprain. Brooks Lennon filled in for him on the right wing last week, and we can expect to see that same configuration again, barring a miracle that will let Savarino back on the pitch this early.

Other than those injuries, it’s all systems go. The players will be leaving it all on the field, as this is absolutely the most important game of the season and there’s no reason to hold back.

Also, side note: will anyone be able to break the three-way tie for the team’s leading scorer? Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak, and Yura Movsisyan all sit on seven goals this season. There’s a good chance we’ll see Plata and/or Rusnak on the scoresheet if RSL is able to float one in the back of the net.

Sporting Kansas City

Record: 12-8-13 (49 points)
Table: 4th place (west), 9th place (overall)
Points per game: 1.48 (9th in MLS)
Most goals: Gerso Fernandes (8)
Most assists: Graham Zusi (7)
Clean sheets: 11 (Tim Melia 10, Andrew Dykstra 1)

MLS: Sporting KC at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Defense, defense, defense. That’s what Sporting Kansas City has been all about this season, and that’s where they really shine. Statistically the best defense in the league, they’ve only allowed an impressive 27 goals, and starting goalkeeper Tim Melia is tied for second in the league on clean sheets with 10, only being outdone by Stefan Frei of the Seattle Sounders who has 12.

Offense? Not so much. They’ve only managed to score 39 goals in total — 10 less than any other team who’s clinched a playoff spot. In fact, they’re 18th in the entire league in goals scored. As we all know, a solid defense won’t win an MLS Cup. They’re going to have to find a way to score if they want to make a deep playoff run.

As I mentioned earlier, they’re 2-7-7 on the road this year, good for one of the worst away records in the league. On top of that, they’re on a four-game overall winless streak, going 0-2-2 since their last win on September 24th. Taking that even further, Sporting is winless in their last six on the road, their last win away from home coming on June 24th when they beat the LA Galaxy 2-1.

In more good news for RSL, Sporting’s preferred ‘keeper Tim Melia has been sidelined with a hamstring injury for the last couple of weeks, and it looks as though he’ll be missing the regular season finale as well. That puts Andrew Dykstra in goal, who has only seen 211 minutes through three games all season long while playing second fiddle to the ex-RSL man.

Kansas City coach Peter Vermes also has a decision to make — will he rest some of his preferred starters in anticipation of a Wednesday playoff game in the knockout round? Or will he bring in a full starting lineup and push for a big win in hopes of securing a bye? If SKC beats RSL, they’d still need some help in the form of a loss or draw from both Portland and Seattle, in which case they’d end up finishing second place and skipping the knockout round altogether.

At any rate, it’s going to be an intense no-holds-barred game between two teams who already have a heated rivalry to begin with. All we can do at this point is sit back, hope for the best, and watch the sparks fly on Sunday.

Oh, and for this weekend only, it’s 100% acceptable to root for the LA Galaxy and Minnesota in their matches. We’ll allow it.


Leading scorers

RSL: Joao Plata (7), Yura Movsisyan (7), Albert Rusnak (7), Luis Silva (6), Jefferson Savarino (6), Kyle Beckerman (4), Luke Mulholland (3), Brooks Lennon (2)

SKC: Gerso (8), Diego Rubio (6), Benny Feilhaber (5), Latif Blessing (3), Daniel Salloi (3), Ike Opara (2), Jimmy Medranda (2)

Absences

RSL
OUT: Jordan Allen (knee), Omar Holness (knee), Chad Barrett (knee), Ricardo Velazco (ankle), Tony Beltran (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: Jefferson Savarino (ankle)

SKC
OUT: Tim Melia (hamstring), Cameron Porter (ankle)

Expected lineups

RSL: Rimando; Phillips, Glad, M Silva, Acosta; Beckerman, Mulholland; Lennon, Rusnak, Plata; L Silva

SKC: Dykstra; Zusi, Opara, Besler, Sinovic; Feilhaber, Espinoza, Sanchez; Gerso, Rubio, Salloi

Match info

When: Sunday, October 22, 2:00PM MT

Where: Rio Tinto Stadium — Sandy, UT

Weather: 63 degrees, sunny

Broadcast: KMYU, ESPN 700 (radio only), MLS Live

Referee: Ricardo Salazar (2017: 20 games, 67 yellows, 4 reds, 9 penalties)