The Stage is Set

Sporting Kansas City forward Alan Pulido assisted on both goals Wednesday in a 2-0 victory against Real Salt Lake in the MLS is Back Tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Disney Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The victory clinched a Knockout Round berth as Sporting won the Group D title.

ORLANDO, Fla. — After navigating a three-game group stage at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World, Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver Whitecaps FC are set for a Round of 16 battle at 10 p.m. Sunday in the win-or-go-home MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi.

Sunday’s contest will be televised live nationally on FS1, FOX Deportes and TUDN, and streamed live via the FOX Sports app.

Led by 12th-year head coach Peter Vermes, Sporting notched consecutive wins against the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake to finish atop Group D of the MLS is Back Tournament and vault to the summit of the Western Conference regular season standings with 12 points and a 4-1-0 record.

Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat of Real Salt Lake, which produced two Alan Pulido assists and goals from Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes, ensured Sporting a spot in the Round of 16 and ultimately a first-place finish in the group after Minnesota United FC drew Colorado later that night.

Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos, who previously coached Sporting Kansas City II during the club’s inaugural USL Championship campaign in 2016, is now in his second season at the Vancouver helm and saw his side book a knockout stage berth in dramatic fashion on Thursday.

Needing a win in their group stage finale, the Whitecaps struck twice in a rain-delayed second half through Yordy Reyna and Cristian Dajome to advance as the third-place team in Group B.

The MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage features 16 clubs contending for a coveted championship and the 2021 Concacaf Champions League berth that comes with it. The winning team will also receive a sizable share of a $1.1 million prize pool. Unlike group stage fixtures, matches in the knockout phase will not count toward the regular season standings, and games tied after 90 minutes will go straight to penalty kicks. There will be no caution accumulation policy for players who receive yellow cards for the remainder of the competition.

Sporting last faced the Whitecaps on opening day of the 2020 MLS campaign in Vancouver. Pulido, Gadi Kinda and Erik Hurtado bagged goals to pace a 3-1 triumph at BC Place on Feb. 29 as Sporting improved to 10-3-4 in the regular season series.

Vermes’ side is 4-0-1 in its past five meetings against Vancouver since 2018, scoring 17 goals and allowing just three.

The winner of Sunday’s showdown will progress to the quarterfinals and meet either the Philadelphia Union or the New England Revolution at 7 p.m. July 30.

With 13 goals in 2020, Sporting boasts the second-best scoring attack in MLS and the most goals through the first five matches of a regular season in club history.

Pulido’s seven combined goals (three) and assists (four) are the second-most in the league, and his active run of five straight appearances with a goal or an assist is the longest in MLS.

Fellow forward Khiry Shelton has also struck three times in 2020, already eclipsing his 2018 total for the club, while Russell and Gerso will aim to build off of their goal-scoring performances on Wednesday. Pulido and Shelton are notably the only MLS players with at least three goals, five chances created and 30 duels won this season.

On the opposite end of the pitch, goalkeeper Tim Melia has quietly pieced together his own excellent start to the campaign. He leads MLS with a 316-minute active shutout streak dating back to Feb. 29 when Vancouver’s Jake Nerwinski found the back of the net in the first half.

Melia boasts a 3-0-0 record this year with an .875 save percentage and a 0.25 goals against average.

Vancouver responded to their season-opening loss against Sporting by claiming an impressive 1-0 road win March 7 against the LA Galaxy.

At the MLS is Back Tournament, the Whitecaps had the San Jose Earthquakes in a 3-1 hole on July 15 — Dajome and standout left back Ali Adnan scored on either side of halftime — only to concede three times in the final half-hour to lose 4-3. After a 3-0 setback to Seattle last Sunday, Vancouver ousted Chicago to move to 2-3-0 on the year.

The Whitecaps have reached the knockout phase despite the absence of three high-profile attackers in Lucas Cavallini, Toisant Ricketts and Fredy Montero, all of whom have missed the MLS is Back Tournament for personal reasons. Cavallini was a marquee offseason addition from Liga MX club Puebla, Ricketts is a longtime Canadian international, and Montero has amassed 68 goals and 43 assists during his storied MLS career.

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