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Western Conference Semifinal Leg 1 Stalemate: Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake battle to 1-1 draw

Diego Rubio scores leveler, important away goal one minute after coming on.

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

MLS Western Conference top seed Sporting Kansas City will head home for their first home playoff game in five years with an away goal and level at one with sixth seed Real Salt Lake in their semifinal series. Substitute Diego Rubio put away a Nick Rimando mistake one minute after coming on to erase RSL’s lead earned by a powerful Albert Rusnak half-volley early in the second half.

Sporting Kansas City v Real Salt Lake. Two rivals with playoff history – mainly Kansas City’s 2013 MLS Cup penalty shootout victory at home, along with some physical regular season encounters and snarky comments in the press. That is the past.

Now, was the away leg for Sporting Kansas City Sunday night at RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium in the MLS 2018 Western Conference semifinal. Sporting Kansas City, as the first-place regular season finisher is the top seed, yet they failed to defeat RSL, the sixth-place finisher, this season. A 4-2 away loss July 4, and a 1-1 draw late September spotted Sporting’s season. All that matters now is scoring more goals in the two-game away-and-home aggregate goals series, where scoring more away goals than the other side matters in case of an aggregate draw.

The only caveat for Kansas City was the necessary insertion of regular midfielder/winger Yohan Croizet at left back for the suspended Seth Sinovic due to red card from a handball denial of a goalscoring opportunity in Sporting’s last regular season match. For Real Salt Lake, coming off a 3-2 away knockout round win over third seed Los Angeles Football Club on Wednesday, they may be impacted by tired legs.

A Croizet step-up just into RSL’s half began the match’s first chance in the 9th minute. From it, striker Khiry Shelton latched onto the ball in the box marked by Marcelo Silva and fed for left winger Daniel Salloi to the left. A return to Shelton, now wide left, saw a right-footed bender that forced Rimando to extend left to push away the attempt.

A Jefferson Savarino shot from outside the box for RSL and a Roger Espinoza header put wide inside the RSL box for Kansas City spiced up the middle of the half as the sides traded intricate forays and a few quick rushes. Even more impactful was a 26th minute yellow card to Albert Rusnak – his second of the playoffs – for a late tackle on right back Graham Zusi in Sporting’s box. His carelessness meant Salt Lake would be without their influential playmaker in the second leg.

More RSL woe featured in the 41st minute when Manager Mike Petke was forced to insert US Youth International Justen Glad for center back Silva due to injury.

Played at a strong pace, the first half ended with two Sporting Kansas City shots on goal to Real Salt Lake’s one and the sides level at three corners apiece.

Sporting’s woe would spike in the 52nd minute from touches of skill from RSL. Toiling on the right edge of Kansas City’s box, right back Brooks Lennon evaded both Croizet and Salloi before rolling back and square for Rusnak near the top circle of Sporting’s box. The Slovakian International chipped into the box for forward Damir Kreilach who nodded the ball back for Rusnak. Rusnak met the bouncing pass on the half-volley, drilling the ball past a leaping Tim Melia to the left for a 1-0 lead.

Diego Rubio, a season-long substitute spark for Kansas City, entered the match for Shelton in the 60th minute. A few touches and one minute later, Rubio leveled the match with a 22-yard shot from middle-left past confounded RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The chance came from midfielder Felipe Gutierrez’s pressure on Rimando as he looked to clear a back pass. Gutierrez deflected the ball that fell to Rubio’s feet that leveled the match at one.

In a 74th flurry from right winger Johnny Russell’s free kick, Sporting drilled two shots on goal. Zusi’s shot from the initial clearance was palmed away by Rimando positioned in front of his six-yard line; then Chinedum Onuoha blocked Espinoza’s follow.

Kansas City manager Peter Vermes introduced the speedy Gerso Fernandes into the match for Salloi in the 83rd minute.

Four minutes later, Salt Lake’s Aaron Herrera hit a heavy shot from 26 yards out on the left that was gobbled up by Melia. Melia came to the rescue in a bigger way as he sprawled to his left in the 90th minute to stop a flick-on header by Onuoha to preserve the tie.

On the night, Sporting Kansas City was a touch off and a step away, relying often on clearances out of their end to hold on for an important away draw and the even more important away goal. The two will meet again in a week’s time at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park to see who goes on to play in the conference final versus the winner of the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders series.