(Nov. 8, 2020) — Sporting Kansas City (12-6-3, 39 points) clinched the Western Conference’s top seed in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday night, posting a 2-0 road victory over Real Salt Lake (5-10-7, 22 points) at snowy Rio Tinto Stadium as the MLS regular season concluded on MLS Decision Day 2020 presented by AT&T.
Forwards Khiry Shelton and Erik Hurtado both scored their fifth goals of the campaign and goalkeeper Tim Melia tabbed his third consecutive shutout, leading Sporting Kansas City to their first MLS away win at Rio Tinto Stadium since 2013. The club’s coldest regular season match on record completed Sporting’s jump from 11th place in the West last year to first place in 2020 — the largest single-season improvement in the 25-year history of MLS.
Sunday’s result gives Sporting Kansas City Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes four first-place conference finishes over the last 10 seasons, two more than any other MLS head coach.
With a successful regular season in the books, Sporting Kansas City has earned homefield advantage in the Western Conference going into the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. Sporting’s first-round matchup will come against the No. 8 seed San Jose Earthquakes on Nov. 21, 22 or 24 at Children’s Mercy Park. Sporting KC Season Ticket Members will have exclusive access to a presale for the match starting Tuesday at 10 a.m. CT. Tickets will then go on sale to the general public beginning Thursday at noon CT.
With temperatures hovering around 32 degrees and snow steadily accumulating on the Rio Tinto Stadium pitch, Sporting Kansas City deployed a reshuffled lineup that included five changes from the 1-0 away win over FC Cincinnati on Oct. 28. Center back Winston Reid notably reprised his role in place of Andreu Fontas, while Luis Martins took left back duties as Amadou Dia was sidelined with a minor injury. Further up the field, midfielders Roger Espinoza and Gianluca Busio replaced Felipe Hernandez and Gadi Kinda, and Gerso Fernandes joined a three-pronged attack in the absence of injured striker Alan Pulido.
Justin Meram was RSL’s danger man in the first half, dashing down the left wing pulling the ball back to Corey Baird on two separate occasions, but the homegrown attacker fired high on his first attempt in the 12th minute and slotted wide of the near post a dozen minutes later.
At the opposite end, Johnny Russell orchestrated a pair of half-chances for Sporting inside the first 26 minutes. A clever flick over the head of defender Donny Toia set the Scottish international free down the right side in the 14th minute, but his low cross caromed safely into the hands of RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa. Near the half-hour mark, his in-swinging free kick was nodded high by the leaping Ilie. Busio then forced Ochoa into a save, settling his repelled corner kick and unfurling a long-range blast beyond the left edge of the box.
The visitors landed their all-important first punch on the stroke of intermission. After Shelton’s strike near the penalty spot deflected off defender Marcelo Silva and spun inches wide, Espinoza latched onto Russell’s out-swinging corner and prompted Ochoa to make a reflex stop. Ilie was first to the loose ball in a crowded box, smashing a low shot that took a slight deflection off the boot of Shelton and trickled into the net. Shelton was credited with his career-high fifth goal of the year on the play, giving Vermes’ side a pivotal lead to defend in the final half of an unprecedented regular season campaign.
Hurtado entered as a halftime substitute for Gerso and wasted no time stamping his name on the latest regular season game in Sporting’s history. The hulking forward ran onto a well-weighted pass from Jaylin Lindsey, rounded Ochoa on the right edge of the box and side-footed a brilliant finish into the gaping net to double the advantage. Hurtado has bagged a goal every 75 minutes this year, the best clip among players with at least six appearances.
Busio went incredibly close to adding a third for Sporting in the 66th minute. The 18-year-old received an impudent ball from Russell and calibrated a thunderous shot that smashed off the near post and skipped clear of Ochoa’s goal. Less than 60 seconds later, Hurtado did wonderfully to leave an RSL defender grasping for ice only to see his right-footed effort saved.
Sporting saw out the final 20 minutes in comfortable fashion, with Espinoza notably becoming the fifth player in club history to eclipse 20,000 regular season minutes for his storied career. The midfielder is one of nine active MLS players to hit 20,000 minutes with a single club, joining longtime teammates Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.