SANDY — All but assured of a spot in the knockout stages of the MLS is Back Tournament, Real Salt Lake has higher designs in its final match of Group D in the Major League Soccer return-to-play competition.
Win the group.
The only thing that stands between RSL and the top seed from the four-team group is Sporting Kansas City. As if these two teams needed more motivation.
Real Salt Lake can clinch Group D with a win over its Kansas-based rivals Wednesday morning (7 a.m. MT, ESPN) or with a little help involving a win by Minnesota in the other Group D match against Colorado.
“We have another rival in front of us; the group is very tough,” RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach told reporters Tuesday. “We know the quality of KC, but it’s about us as well. We’ve showed that we are a very good team, and at the end of the day, we want to win and to win the group stage. It’s a six-point game.”
Salt Lake (1-0-1, 4 points) already defeated one rival with a 2-0 win over Colorado in the tournament opener. But Kansas City presents another challenge, and more so with the re-emergence of a healthy Tim Melia in goal for Peter Vermes’ side.
Melia once played for RSL, as a backup to legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando (since retired). But Wednesday’s match won’t be about him.
It will be about two clubs that, quite frankly, just don’t like each other — one of the more organic and hate-filled rivalries among supporters in the league.
“For us, we’re going to put our best foot forward and have a strong mentality, because we know that Peter Vermes and his team are going to have a strong mentality,” RSL coach Freddy Juarez said. “If we don’t have it, we’re in trouble.
“But I know the guys will be up for it; every game against Kansas City is a well-fought match between two teams that don’t want to put their hands down. It’s two teams that will play until the end.”
"We believe & we'll be up for it." pic.twitter.com/5qKCAjQa9q— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) July 22, 2020
The stakes are real. A win for RSL would clinch the top seed from Group D, and set up a knockout round match with one of four highest-qualifying No. 3 seeds. Lose to Sporting, and RSL will likely slot in as the No. 2 seed, which will face Group E champion Columbus Crew SC on July 28 at 6 p.m. MT.
Salt Lake can also clinch the group title if Minnesota United loses or draws with Colorado, and RSL draws with Kansas City.
RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak, who scored one of the club’s two goals in the tournament, will miss the match with a hip injury that is not expected to keep him out longer than one match. What the club does have, though, is an unblemished record – one of two teams in the tournament that has yet to concede a goal, after Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Minnesota United.
Wednesday’s match will also be the second-earliest of the tournament; Seattle had a 6 a.m. local kick scheduled back on July 14.
No need to wait for these two teams, though.
“We want to stay unbeatable as long as possible,” said Kreilach, who scored the other goal against the Rapids. “That’s what it’s all about. We want to keep the great attitude and mood with the team. That’s what we’ll try to do Wednesday.”
MLS is Back Tournament
Wednesday, July 21, at 7 a.m. MT
Real Salt Lake (1-0-1, 4 points) vs. Sporting Kansas City (1-1-0, 3 points)
Radio: ESPN 700