A game in which a first-place club visits a last-place club carries an unexpected amount of possible storylines as Sporting Kansas City faces FC Cincinnati on Wednesday night.
Sporting Kansas City (10-6-3, 33 points) leads the Western Conference, a point ahead of second-place Seattle and Portland (pending Seattle's match against Vancouver on Tuesday). SKC are rounding into form with a 4-1-1 record in their past six matches.
With a win or a tie, Sporting would clinch a spot in the MLS playoffs.
FC Cincinnati (4-12-4, 16 points) is bringing up the rear of the Eastern Conference table, having gone 1-6-1 in their past eight matches.
While it may appear to be a breather for Sporting K.C., manager Peter Vermes isn't looking at it like that.
"If you look at all their games at home, they're really low-scoring games," said Vermes, who became the first MLS head coach to record 10 regular-season wins in 11 consecutive years with the victory over Colorado. "They're difficult to play on their field there for a lot of reasons.
"They do a really good job of fighting for things, of scraping and scrapping for stuff. I don't think there's anybody in our group who thinks this is an easy game."
Cincinnati has the worst goal differential in MLS (minus-20), but a strong effort against Minnesota United in its latest match may be a sign of improvement, albeit with the reminder of why the club occupies the cellar.
Cincinnati had 59 percent of possession in the first half, with eight shots, but only one on target, in a 1-0 home loss on Saturday.
"It's frustrating because you go inside this game to win, because every game you go to win," midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. "I think we started very well, with a couple of 100 percent chances that should normally go in. But you don't score and you let them stay alive."
Beating a first-place club would go a long way to releasing some of that frustration.
--Field Level Media
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Roger Espinoza scored his second goal of the season to help Sporting Kansas City clinch a playoff spot with a 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati in the final MLS match at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium.
SKC are back in the postseason a year after their eight-year streak of playoff appearances end. Sporting K.C. (11-6-3, 36 points) moved back atop the Western Conference standings, a point above the Seattle Sounders.
Espinoza received a perfect pass from a charging Alan Pulido in front of the goal in the 57th minute, then fired a left-footed shot from close range past Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey.
Two minutes later, Sporting's Roberto Puncec received a yellow card for a foul inside the box, and Cincinnati was awarded a penalty kick. However, Siem de Jong hit the post on his PK attempt and goalie Tim Melia deflected the follow-up shot to preserve the 1-0 lead.
Although Melia did not receive credit for a penalty-kick save, he has 11 PK saves since the start of 2016, six more than any other MLS keeper in that period.
Sporting K.C. were far more aggressive in the second half after showing little energy in the first half. They had 12 of their 13 shots in the second half, including all four of their shots on target.
The first goal is critical for FC Cincinnati (4-13-4, 16 points), which is 4-0-0 when scoring first this season and 0-13-0 when allowing the first goal. The team has played four scoreless draws.
FC Cincinnati has never come from behind to win a match in nearly two full seasons in MLS. They are 0-30-1 all-time when trailing at any point in a match.
Neither team could mount much offense in the first half. Cincinnati held a significant advantage in possession (65 percent). FC Cincinnati had seven shots prior to halftime, with Jurgen Locadia having the only attempt on goal.
When Melia made a point-blank save at the 45-minute mark on Locadia's shot, he passed Tony Meola for the most career saves (508) in franchise history.