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Match preview: RSL takes on rivals Sporting Kansas City in Group D finale

Real Salt Lake can secure their place in the knockout rounds of the MLS is Back tournament with a draw against Kansas City, but they’ll be looking for the full three points regardless.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting Kansas City Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Set your alarms, grab your coffee, and settle in for what may be the first-ever Real Salt Lake game that coincides with breakfast, as they take on Sporting Kansas City in their final game of the MLS is Back group stage at 7:00 AM MT.

RSL will be looking to secure a spot in the knockout rounds, and can do so with either a win or a draw against SKC. Currently tied for first on points with Minnesota United, both teams sit at four points, while SKC has three and Colorado, surprising to nobody, has zero. A draw would be enough for Freddy Juarez’s team to advance into the knockouts, putting first place out of reach for the bottom two teams.

Sporting Kansas City, even with a draw, would still have a chance to jump into first place, depending on how Minnesota United fares against the Colorado Rapids. A Minnesota loss and a Kansas City-RSL draw would put SKC and the Loons even on points and wins, and the tiebreaker would come down to goal differential.

The usual story

RSL showed some familiar play against Minnesota last week, looking very strong on defense while ultimately coming up short on the attacking side. Some would say this is very reminiscent of RSL in recent years, as finding the back of the net on a consistent basis has been somewhat of a struggle. Since the departure of RSL’s all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio in 2015, they’ve struggled to find a solid replacement up top who can score game in and game out. This season, Juarez has a choice up top between players like Sam Johnson — who finished with only nine goals in 24 games last year — and new signing Giuseppe Rossi, who we have yet to see significant minutes from.

Last season, goals came from the likes of Albert Rusnak (10), Sam Johnson (9), Jefferson Savarino (8), and Damir Kreilach (6). With the loss of Savarino in the offseason, RSL brought in a replacement in Jeizon Ramirez who has played a total of two minutes this season thus far. Obviously, in a normal circumstance we may have seen him become a regular starter four months into the season, but with only two games played before the COVID-19 suspension, it seems like he’s still got to battle his way into the lineup. Juarez addressed his absence recently, attributing it to a fitness issue, but that he’s been improving in training.

Rusnak’s injury

We all watched and crossed our fingers last week when Albert Rusnak went down with an injury and had to be subbed out of the game in the 34th minute. The injury looked pretty bad at the time, but luckily it sounds like it’s not nearly as serious as it seemed. Juarez explained on Monday that Rusnak could be back on Wednesday to face off against Kansas City.

“He felt better today, so he was doing a little bit of exercise there off the field,” Juarez told the media via Zoom. “We think tomorrow he’ll be even better, so it’s really just day-to-day. That’s just the total honesty.”

SKC’s struggles continue

Kansas City had an abysmal 2019 showing, finishing in second-to-last place in the Western Conference with a measly 38 points. This season, Peter Vermes’ crew started off strong logging back-to-back wins against Vancouver and Houston to kick off the season. In the MLS is Back tournament, they gave up two stoppage time goals to hand Minnesota the 2-1 win in their opening game, and then were able to squeak out a 3-2 stoppage time victory over the Colorado Rapids last week in game two.

SKC is putting their new signing Alan Pulido to work this season, as he’s already tallied three goals and two assists through four games. Two of those goals came in the first two games of the season, but he’s got one goal and one assist in the MLS is Back tournament so far. SKC’s other new signing has almost matched Pulido’s output, as midfielder Gadi Kinda has also notched two goals and two assists this year.

Along with the new faces, expect to see some old familiar faces such as Graham Zusi, Nick Besler, Roger Espinosa, and Gerso Fernandes.

One of the most underrated rivalries in MLS, these two teams always put on a great show. With so much at stake on Wednesday morning, we can expect no less as they’ll both be out for the full three points that also roll over into the regular season.

Match info

When: Wednesday, July 22, 7:00AM MT

Where: ESPN Wide World of Sports — Orlando, FL

Weather: 78 degress, cloudy, 5% chance of rain

Broadcast: ESPN, ESPN Deportes