Sporting Kansas City heads into the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, facing the daunting task of eliminating a San Jose Earthquakes side which has proven at time to be stingy to break down.
Peter Vermes’ side is riding a four-match unbeaten run coming into Sunday’s first round date with the Quakes, including a three-match winning streak. Sporting KC’s defensive stability of late makes the top seed in the West a tough out for any team, while offensively SKC has found consistent scoring from several players.
The Earthquakes claimed positive results near the end of the regular season against both LAFC and the Seattle Sounders, but conceded the most goals in MLS (51). Matias Almeyda’s team may be streaky at the back however should be a tough out of their own after fighting to get into the postseason.
Sunday’s contest will feature two different styles of play, making it an intriguing No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup regardless.
This will be the first meeting between the two clubs since August 2019 due to COVID-19. Sporting KC has won three of the last four head-to-head meetings, with two of those coming at home.
Players to Watch
With several key players on the verge of missing the first-round matchup through injury, Johnny Russell is Sporting KC’s most dangerous attacking weapon. The Scottish winger has six goals and two assists in 21 appearances this season and his veteran leadership should help in the postseason.
While Chris Wondolowski remains San Jose’s best scoring option, Cristian Espinoza has put together a strong 2020 campaign. The 20-year-old led the Earthquakes with seven assists and also chipped in three goals. Espinoza is a creative attacking player who has been a handful for opposing defenses all season.
Matchup to Watch
GERSO FERNANDES VS. NICK LIMA
Wing play will be crucial for Sporting KC and with Johnny Russell the top option at right wing, Gerso Fernandes could face a tough battle on the left wing. The Portuguese winger has scored three goals and added three assists, but is likely to deal with Nick Lima should he start. Lima has remained a top defensive option among MLS clubs this season and his aggressive play could give Fernandes trouble in the attacking third.
With Alan Pulido still out with a knee injury, Erik Hurtado’s role should increase for Sporting KC. The 30-year-old scored five goals in MLS this season with two of those coming in the last four matches.
In his second season with the club, Andres Rios is a good option for Almeyda to have off the bench or in the starting lineup. Rios has scored five goals this season and the 31-year-old will bring leadership to the mix when his name is called.
Sporting KC is the favorite to advance, but the Earthquakes have the ability to create chances and could make it a closer tie than people think at Children’s Mercy Park.
If Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda can not play for the hosts, it will put more pressure on players like Gianluca Busio, Johnny Russell, and Gerso Fernandes at their positions. Luckily for Vermes, he has an experienced goalkeeper in Tim Melia and a backline which has only conceded three goals in its last five matches overall.
The Earthquakes have shown the ability to play up to some of the top teams in the Western Conference and will need more of that confidence on Sunday. Despite a Decision Day loss to Seattle, the Quakes had a good run of form going before season’s end and now need its leaders like Wondolowski, Lima, and Shea Salinas to shine for a chance at a major upset on the road.