This was not the plan.
Sporting Kansas City, just a single win away from their second Western Conference finals appearance in three years, entered Thursday night’s game against Minnesota United as the top seed in the West.
Coming off the penalty kick heroics of Tim Melia in the previous game against the San Jose Earthquakes, many SKC fans were feeling good. Facing a Minnesota team that had never won in Kansas City, it seemed that all SKC had to do was play the way we all know they’re capable of to beat the Loons once again and move on to face the Seattle Sounders.
Adrian Heath, Emanuel Reynoso, and MNUFC had other ideas.
The game opened in a fast-paced, back-and-forth fashion, with Johnny Russell getting the first opportunity on the MNUFC goal within minutes, and the Loons countering with pace as they pushed the ball deep into Sporting KC territory.
Johnny had his second golden opportunity of the game in the 14th minute, as Khiry Shelton sprung the Scotsman free for a one-on-one with Dayne St. Claire, who did just enough to push Russell’s shot wide of the net.
Just seconds later centerback Roberto Puncec appeared as if he may have put Sporting KC ahead with a point blank header from a cross, but St. Claire once again came up huge for the Loons and punched the shot away just in time to prevent the ball from clearing the goal line.
As Sporting KC fans have become accustomed to all too often in recent memory, SKC’s missed chances would come back to bite them.
Despite SKC looking the stronger side for much of the first 30 minutes, Kevin Molino drew first blood for the Loons in the 27th minute. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso stole the ball near midfield, and Molino was able to run free right past Puncec without any SKC defender picking him up. Loons’ designated player Emanuel Reynoso set up Molino with a perfect through ball, and the Trinidadian midfielder got the better of Tim Melia to give MNUFC the 1-0 lead.
KEVIN MOLINO. ICE COLD.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) December 4, 2020
1-0 to @MNUFC!#SKCvMIN // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/f6qOnZNGxG
Just eight minutes later, Reynoso found Molino again to double the Loons’ lead. Once again, Molino perfectly timed his run to get past Sporting KC’s cement-footed centerbacks, and Reynoso sent a ball over the top. Molino was able to connect just enough with the ball just enough to send it across the face of goal and slowly into the corner of the net.
IT'S THE KEVIN MOLINO SHOW@MNUFC on top 2-0! #SKCvMIN // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/5Jb3qSMp8Y— Major League Soccer (@MLS) December 4, 2020
The wheels entirely fell off for Sporting in the 38th minute as MNUFC defender Bakaye Dibassy put his head to a Reynoso corner kick and gave the Loons a 3-0 lead less than 40 minutes into the game.
3-0, MINNESOTA UNITED. pic.twitter.com/ZV1Z8ZlVWU— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 4, 2020
It took Vermes more than ten minutes into the second half to make his first substitution, but even the addition of attacking midfielder Gadi Kinda couldn’t do much to ignite Sporting KC’s offense. Minnesota continued to press Sporting’s defense, and Kansas City just couldn’t find a clear shot on goal.
The game ended 3-0 in favor of Minnesota United. All it took was a 12 minute window in the first half for Sporting KC’s 2020 season to come to an end.
Ultimately, Sporting simply had no answer for Minnesota’s recently added designated player Emanuel Reynoso. The Argentinian came to MNUFC as a record-breaking signing, and quickly became the Loons’ team leader in assists despite only playing 13 games. His skills and quality were on full display Thursday night at Children’s Mercy Park, as the $5 million signing was far and away the best player on the field.
In the same season SKC broke the club transfer record and signing designated player Alan Pulido, there will certainly be questions for Peter Vermes and Co. to answer this offseason. The defense was consistently inconsistent, to put it mildly. They would look decent in some games but downright amateur in others. Injuries to Graham Zusi and Matt Besler certainly didn’t help, though one could argue Besler wouldn’t have seen the field consistently even without injury.
Roberto Puncec and Winston Reid settled into the starting CB roles at the end of the year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a KC fan who wouldn’t be in favor of an upgrade in the middle of the back line.
Left back remains an issue for Sporting after years of trying to find a suitable replacement for Seth Sinovic. Amadou Dia took the reins from Luis Martins halfway through the year and became the first choice LB, but questions about whether he’s the long-term solution for SKC are more than fair.
Jaylin Lindsey is the only right back on the roster outside of 34-year-old Graham Zusi, who will be coming off a months-long rehab following foot surgery.
Reinforcements at defensive midfield and on the left wing would be further welcome additions for Peter Vermes’ team.
In the end, 2020 will go down as a strange year for the entire league, let alone Sporting KC. Exactly how to classify this season in terms of success remains unknown at this time. Yes, SKC finished atop the West, but would that have been the case if they played regular season games against Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Philly, or LAFC? It’s impossible to say.
One thing that is for sure, Peter Vermes will not be satisfied with how the 2020 season ended, and changes are almost assuredly coming.