SANDY, Utah — Before Real Salt Lake and Sporing Kansas City finished the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinal knotted at 1-1, the dynamics of next Sunday’s second leg (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS) were altered in the 25th minute when Albert Rusnak picked up his second yellow card of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs for his sliding tackle on Graham Zusi deep in RSL's offensive end.
And afterward, the Slovakian international who later opened the scoring with a thunderous half-volley strike was incredulous at the decision.
"It was my first foul of the game. I didn’t catch him with the studs. I just slid my body into his. You see these fouls all over the world and they don’t get booked,” Rusnak said. “I don’t know whether because it’s playoffs and the referees are more careful about these things or what.”
To advance, Salt Lake now will need to find a way to either win or secure a draw while scoring multiple at SKC's Children's Mercy Park next Sunday. The question will be what change coach Mike Petke can make so his squad can do that without Rusnak's services..
“It is what it is,” Petke said. “We’re without Albert. We have to make an adjustment. Whoever we insert, not only that position but the extra position that’s available, has a job to do. We have seven days to put it together, figure it out, work on it and be ready.”
On the other side, Kansas City coach Peter Vermes doesn't believe the absence will make a huge impact.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in [missing one player], someone else is going to come in. It’s playoff time and they’re going to play,” Vermes said.
Rusnak has provided the Salt Lake attack with 11 goals and 7 assists this season, but when he hasn’t been on the field, RSL has still had success, going 4-0-1 in matches he didn't start and 3-0 in games he didn't play at all.
Petke has shuffled his lineup enough that there are several scenarios for what the second leg in Kansas City could look like. Damir Kreilach could play as an attacking midfielder. Salt Lake could slide Jefferson Savarino into the middle. Salt Lake could play with three holding midfielders in Kyle Beckerman, Sunny and Luke Mulholland.
“It’s a good thing for us for as many quality players that aren’t on the field for them, but I’m sure they’ll have other guys who will step into that position too,” Kansas City defender Matt Besler said.