Sporting, Seattle to battle for first place today in KCK

A Western Conference showdown between title contenders beckons Sunday as first-place Sporting Kansas City (13-5-7, 46 points) welcomes second-place Seattle Sounders FC (13-5-6, 45 points) at 6 p.m. in Kansas City, Kansas.

Tickets for the biggest MLS regular season match at Children’s Mercy Park so far this season are available at SeatGeek.com.

Sunday’s contest will be shown live nationally on FS1 and FOX Deportes while streaming on the FOX Sports app and FOXSports.com. Listeners can follow the action locally on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and La Grande 1340 AM (Spanish) and nationally on SiriusXM FC.

The high-stakes encounter will coincide with Sporting’s annual Kick Childhood Cancer Night, featuring an Honoree Homecoming with a VIP experience for previous Victory Project Honorees and their families. In a fundraising effort tied to the game, up to $5,000 will be donated to Children’s Mercy Hospital through $250 donations for each Sporting Kansas City shot attempt. On the stadium concourse, ticket holders will have an opportunity to shop from a variety of Kick Childhood Cancer merchandise at SportingStyle locations, including a limited-edition training top and scarf. To further support Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Sporting is raising funds for The Victory Project throughout September via the weekly Argyle Ace raffle and an online auction that launched last week.

The top of the Western Conference table underscores the magnitude of Sunday’s clash. Sporting sits a point ahead of Seattle at the summit, having played one game more than its Pacific Northwest counterparts.

A win for either side this weekend could go a long way in deciding which team claims the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the MLS Cup Playoffs later this fall.

Beyond the context of the 2021 campaign, Sporting and Seattle have earned the right to call themselves two of the best MLS clubs over the last 10 seasons.

Each team boasts four major cup titles since 2011 and the sides have combined for 19 of a possible 20 playoff appearances during that time.

Under the guidance of 13th-year manager Peter Vermes, Sporting hoisted the 2013 MLS Cup as well as Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles in 2012, 2015 and 2017. Seattle, led by sixth-year head coach Brian Schmetzer, has lifted two of each — Open Cups in 2011 and 2014 and MLS Cups in 2016 and 2019.

Winners of two straight matches, Sporting is seeking its third finish atop the West in the last four seasons. Captain Johnny Russell has caught fire in recent weeks, scoring in each of his last three home appearances at Children’s Mercy Park to become just the second MLS player since the start of 2018 to record 30 goals and 30 assists in the regular season.

Russell was one of four goal scorers in a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Minnesota United FC on Sept. 15, with MLS All-Star winger Daniel Salloi, forward Khiry Shelton and 20-year-old Sporting KC Academy product Cam Duke also finding the back of the net. Salloi has enjoyed a sensational 2021 campaign with 13 goals and six assists, ranking third in the MLS Golden Boot race and tied for fourth with 19 total goal contributions.

The Sounders have played twice since Sporting last took the field over a week ago, falling 1-0 at Real Salt Lake last Saturday before suffering a 3-2 loss to LIGA MX heavyweights Club Leon in the Leagues Cup Final on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Cristian Roldan and Nicolas Benezet scored Seattle goals that bookended three unanswered strikes from Leon, who eliminated Sporting from the competition at the quarterfinal stage on Aug. 10.

Despite sustaining back-to-back defeats, Seattle appears firmly in the mix to contend for a fifth Western Conference title and MLS Cup appearance since 2016.

Prolific forward Raul Ruidiaz is second in MLS with 14 goals and was one of six Seattle players to receive MLS All-Star recognition this summer alongside brothers Cristian and Alex Roldan, midfield playmaker Joao Paulo and defenders Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Nouhou Tolo. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei notably returned to action on Sept. 11 after a long stint out through injury, further bolstering a defense that wields a league-low 0.83 goals against average. The Sounders have been particularly successful away from home, as its 7-2-2 road record is the best in MLS.

Like Seattle, Sporting features a stout backline and a veteran goalkeeper.

Tim Melia has tabbed consecutive clean sheets and places second in MLS with a 0.95 goals against average, tying a league record by winning 10 games for the seventh successive regular season. The 35-year-old is shielded by a strong stable of defenders who have performed consistently well throughout the year.

Center back Andreu Fontas leads the league in goals added, an advanced analytic measuring a player’s on-ball contribution to both attack and defense, while fellow Spaniard Ilie Sanchez has shown positional versatility by dropping from his patented defensive midfield role into central defense. Left back Luis Martins is the only Sporting player who has appeared in all 25 regular season matches this year.

Sporting won the most recent meeting between the clubs in convincing fashion, posting a 3-1 road win over Seattle on July 25 with a free kick from Russell, a strike from Salloi on the counterattack and a first career MLS goal from Duke. The result typified a recent trend in the series: Vermes’ men have gone 7-2-3 in the last 12 regular season games against Seattle since 2015, including a 4-0-2 record in the last six matches at Children’s Mercy Park.

Sporting has won three straight meetings overall, including a pair of 3-2 victories during the 2019 regular season. The last five games between the clubs have produced 22 goals, a lofty clip of 4.4 goals per match.

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