Throw it out. Trash it. It’s bantha fodder. Sporting Kansas City winning two of three over Minnesota United FC in the 2020 regular season means nothing for Wednesday evening’s MLS Western Conference Semifinal match at top seed Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park.
Not just because the playoffs are a hairy beast in which mistakes are magnified. Not just because home-field advantage does not mean quite as much without a full stadium. But because Minnesota United is the real deal.
The Loons defeated MLS teams Sporting KC, Houston Dynamo, and Portland Timbers on the way to the 2019 US Open Cup Final. In the final, they pushed a 10-man Atlanta United to the brink, nearly overcoming a 2-0 first-half deficit to lose 2-1 in front of 35,709 in Atlanta. At the MLS is Back tourney this July and August, they made it to the semifinal before falling to hosts Orlando City. Minnesota is tournament hardened.
After finishing 4th in the Western Conference (like this season) in 2019, they tasted the bitter pill that can be the MLS Playoffs, suffering a 2-1 first-round defeat at home to the 5th seeded Los Angeles Galaxy. Minnesota is motivated.
Minnesota has been proving they are the real deal for over a year now. And they are the hungriest of underdogs. Rabid beasts in moments.
Those moments are when they are on the ball in the buildup or in transition. On the hunt, Argentine Emanuel ‘Bebalo’ Reynoso (7 assists in 826 minutes) is the clear pack leader. The driven 25-year-old blonde-topped marauder pops up everywhere and anywhere, thriving on the ball. His ability to combine in tight spaces is exceeded only by his superb ability to swing the ball to the other field for the surging open man. The biggest problem may be, though, that Sporting Kansas City only saw Reynoso for 23 minutes this season (in the two sides’ last meeting) as the Boca Juniors transfer was not signed by the Loons until September 1.
In their 3-0 defeat of Colorado Rapids Sunday evening in Round One of the playoffs, Minnesota used their high defensive pressure to often lock Colorado in their own end and force errors out of the Rapids. When they won the ball, the movement of Reynoso and his posse of the talented Trinidad and Tobago native Kevin Molino (9 goals), able MLS veteran Ethan Finley (4 goals), and Finnish forward Robin Lod (7 goals) made Colorado’s collective head swim. The quartet’s movement may be the best in the league as their clever runs – especially Molino’s runs wide and inside to combine with Reynoso and Finlay’s runs through the middle – initiate pinpoint passes from Reynoso.
Molino lines up on the left and that is from where Minnesota attacked the Rapids most frequently. But no matter where they are on the field, the Loons work their triangles well to release players into space or to play that killer switch. Let the Loons get out on transition and these abilities rise at double-speed.
Sporting Kansas City will have to track well all over the field, or just not let Minnesota breathe with their own high pressure and ball possession and by busying the Loons’ defense.
Looking sideways at Minnesota’s reinforcements on the bench, Sporting fans may flinch seeing former Seattle Sounders defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. Peeking past him, dread may overtake the heart. Though he is somewhat a shell of his former self, ex-KC can-do-it-all-in-the-attack man Kei Kamara lingers there too. What a head-in-the-hands moment it would be to see Kamara be Sporting’s undoing. Surely the soccer gods are not that cruel. But they are cruel enough to keep beloved former Kansas City center back Ike Opara off the field for this one, as the center back has been out since MLS is Back for Minnesota.
However… the Loons are a
paper cardboard tiger (If you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors.). Dampen their underbelly and they can fold.
In fact, Minnesota’s 3-0 win over Colorado – although it showcased United’s attacking prowess – played out as a much closer match. The Rapids found resistance moderate and space ample up the Loons’ gut, scheming successful and time available down the left wing. As a result, Colorado put Minnesota on their heels at the beginning of each half. But they did not capitalize then or ever, even though they outshot United 18-16 (though short one on shots on goal).
As suspect as duel holding midfielders Jan Gregus and Marlon Hairston – to a lesser extent center backs Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy – were for Minnesota, goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was consistently shaky, particularly on flighted balls near his goal. During the season, United allowed only one more goal than Sporting (both in the top ten in goals against), but against Colorado their defense looked sophomoric at times.
Yet, the 2020 MLS Playoffs are trending for a Minnesota triumph as underdogs FC Dallas, Nashville SC, and New England Revolution have thrown out the numbers and taken wins. Not to mention that Minnesota has not lost in its last nine games (5 wins, 4 draws).
None of this is meant to discount Sporting Kansas City, their sure talent, or the fact that they too are hardened, motivated (two more wins and they will host MLS Cup 2020), and the real deal.
After all, Sporting has grounded the Loons all five times at home (11 goals to 1), the last without Alan Pulido, Ilie Sanchez, Winston Reid, and Roger Espinoza. (Don’t be surprised if Espinoza drops Reynoso by the second minute to let him know how the evening will go…) But Kansas City will have to be consistently near the top of their game to grab this victory.
As they should have to be. This is the playoffs. Bring it on!