Sporting Kansas City welcomes Real Salt Lake to Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday afternoon for their MLS playoff game (3pm ET; Live on TV: ESPN Deportes, ABC, ESPN3). Will the hosts make light work of making it through, just like they did in the previous round? Or can the visitors cause yet another upset? This preview aims to answer those questions as well as giving our predictions & betting picks for this matchup.
How did they get here?
For SKC, after what was a pretty straightforward campaign, one where they never looked in danger of dropping away from the first two or three spots in the Western Conference, it was plain sailing during the first knockout game. In truth, up against the Vancouver Whitecaps on home soil, Peter Vermes’ men were never likely to struggle and they didn’t, winning by three goals to one. From a creativity point of view, they probably weren’t at their blistering best, but they were clinical, especially with the first goal, which came courtesy of a neatly executed finish from Khiry Shelton, who scored for the second time in four games.
As for RSL, well their route to the Western Conference semifinals was a little different. Unlike the SKC boys, who were never in any danger of missing out on the postseason, Real Salt Lake crept in late in the day. There was nothing convincing about the way in which they made it past the Seattle Sounders to reach this point. Going away to Lumen Field was always going to be tough, and the visitors were up against it from the word go, yet despite being on the backfoot throughout, and despite registering no shots, they held firm and clung on all the way to penalties, where they came out on top. A smash and grab if ever there was one.
Prone to the odd slip-up
For the most part, Sunday’s hosts were strong at home during the regular season. They claimed the fifth-most home points in the west, picking up only three less than the team with the best home record, while in terms of home losses, they were the second-best side that the Western Conference had to offer. However, they were no strangers to slipping up in games that they really ought to have won. From nine home games against teams that finished in the bottom seven places, SKC picked up five wins, two ties and two losses. They often failed to make their extra possession count against the so-called lesser sides. They were at times vulnerable from set pieces and in the wide areas, which was ultimately their undoing when RSL won at Children’s Mercy Park three weeks ago.
RSL on top
Sporting Kansas City is the team that impressed more throughout the campaign as far as these two are concerned, while it is the hosts who created the better impression during the last round of the play-offs, though Sunday’s visitors have a 100% record in this fixture in 2021. When the teams initially met during the regular season, Salt Lake emerged 3-1 winners on home soil, and it really was hard to argue that their victory was anything but deserved.
When it was SKC’s turn to host earlier this month, most people, including the primary USA bookies, expected revenge to be had. Vermes’ men started the game as -133 favorites, but were unable to make the headway required, losing by a goal to nil, and it was that goal, scored by Damir Kreilach in the 95th minute, that secured RSL’s play-off spot. The hosts were by no means entirely outplayed, but again, it’s hard to say that they were massively hard done by, so we really shouldn’t be surprised if the visitors can have a say here for the second time this month.
Sporting Kansas City worthy of strong favoritism?
Home advantage is a big thing, especially in the playoffs, and the hosts are certainly no mugs at home, but do they really warrant such strong favoritism ahead of a match against a team that has already beaten them not once but twice this season? To be completely honest, probably not.
There wasn’t much to like about the way RSL got the better of the Seattle Sounders. OK, they defended stoutly and stuck to the task, but their lack of attacking threat on that occasion is worrying. Then again, they have already proved that they can hurt Sunday’s hosts, scoring four goals in two matches against Kansas City. What’s more, when the pair faced off at this venue earlier this month, it was RSL who produced more in terms of creativity, posting 1.4 expected goals compared to SKC’s 1.1. Such numbers suggest that there’s less between the pair than the betting lines would have us believe. Therefore, it’s hard not to think that a bet favoring the visiting side offers bettors a slice of value.
With the lines the way that they are currently, ‘Real Salt Lake +1 Handicap’ appeals. Not only are RSL unbeaten in two against SKC in 2021, but they are riding a wave right now and while they are not the best offensively, they have built up lots of defiant momentum and after two excellent results, at very attractive odds, look a good bet to hold out, at least for 90 minutes.
So, turning to our predictions, this is the sole betting pick for this preview: