Losing sucks. As with all seasons, every team but one will lose. Sporting Kansas City met their match on Thursday night in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoff Western Conference Semifinal. Minnesota United were the better team, particularly for 12 minutes late in the first half. The 3-0 defeat won’t stop hurting for a while.
I’ve titled it excuses, but let’s make some observations, shine some light on some positives and do a bit of complaining so we can move on to the offseason and look ahead to the future.
Sporting Didn’t Have Alan Pulido
Despite Peter Vermes saying how “available” Pulido was and how different it was than when he was “available” against the San Jose Earthquakes but he wasn’t selected, Pulido was in street clothes not even making the bench. The team’s most expensive player ever, probably most valuable in the minutes he played, didn’t suit up at all in the playoffs for Sporting KC. Of all the excuses I’ll throw at you, this may be the best.
Gadi Kinda Wasn’t Fit Yet
This is more my opinion, but Kinda not starting either playoff gave after missing a few weeks with an unknown injury (it was probably COVID-19) left him less than fit. He started 16 of 18 appearances in the regular season and was tied for the team lead in goals. It’s hard to imagine if he had anywhere close to 90 minutes in him he’s not a starter. Maybe PV thought Busio was a better option, but I think it was fitness. When they were both healthy (and Roger Espinoza too), Vermes had no problem playing Busio at left wing. Kinda wasn’t fit or in form and it showed.
Erik Hurtado Was Hurt Too
This is a bit of a further stretch, but we are making excuses here, get off my back! During the broadcast, I’m almost certain I heard John Strong say Erik Hurtado was recovering from a knee strain. I couldn’t find the news anywhere, but it explains why he couldn’t run against the San Jose Earthquakes (and I thought he was tired from having a new baby). This one is a bit softer because he wouldn’t have been in the game in the first half most likely. Though, if he’s fully fit, he’s a much more dynamic scorer than Khiry Shelton and maybe he would have started. He scored five times in just 376 minutes for a rate of 1.19 goals per 90 minutes played.
This Was Mostly the 2019 Team on the Field
Remember 2019? I try to forget. It was that awful year where SKC finished next to last in the Western Conference, missed the playoffs for the first time in what felt like forever and Sporting were just generally terrible. I know you tried to forget too. Well, the lineup on the field was shockingly close to a 2019 lineup. The only new starters on the team were Amadou Dia, Winston Reid, Roberto Puncec and Khiry Shelton. And two of those are former Sporting KC players. This is basically the same point as Pulido and Kinda didn’t start, but it felt worth typing again.
Sporting were Missing a Lot of Salary Too
We’ve obviously mentioned Pulido and Kinda, both of whom will be Designated Players in 2021 after Kinda had his loan option picked up. But another missing player is DP Felipe Gutierrez who missed all of 2020. That means that Johnny Russell, likely the fourth highest salary budget charge on the team, was the “best” available player (Kinda played, but see above). That frankly makes me even more excited for 2021 if they can all be healthy and in the lineup together (and if Gutierrez is brought back).
To put that in comparison it would be like if Minnesota were with Emmanuel Reynoso (three assists on the night), Jan Gregus and Thomas Chacon (okay, Chacon never plays). Or if the Seattle Sounders had to go through the playoffs without Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paolo (it would feel better if this was Jordan Morris). I think you see the point.
The Stadium Need More Fans
I’m not advocating breaking COVID protocols, but how nice would it have been, in a non-pandemic world, to have a stadium full of rabid fans? Children’s Mercy Park is consistently listed as a place where opposing teams hate to play. With just 18 percent capacity, even though it sounded like way more, it’s just not the same. Next year! Hopefully...
That Puncec Header was Over the Line, Right?
In the 15th minute it looked like Sporting KC took the lead. Jaylin Lindsey beat his defender up the right side of the 18-yard-box and chipped a cross to Roberto Puncec who drove it down only to see a diving Dayne St. Clair swat it away. Live, I thought it was in. The FOX broadcast only gave a few angles and the goal was fairly quickly confirmed by VAR to have not gone in (or not had enough information to change the call).
MLS stunningly doesn’t have goal line technology. You be the judge. The first angle is probably the best, but it still inconclusive. It’s just hard to imagine there aren’t more angles. Where is the damn Target goalpost cam when you need it?
Sporting KC was Unlucky in Front of Goal
The first 20-25 minutes were a completely different game than the subsequent 12 minutes where Minnesota bagged three rapid fire goals. In addition to the above Puncec chance, Johnny Russell and Roger Espinoza combined for a Russell chip that looked destined top fall in until a late charging Michael Boxall headed it away.
A bit before the collapse Russell also broke in on goal with Gerso Fernandes streaking to his left. His goal scoring drought would continue as he tried to shoot instead of slotting the pass to the open Gerso for a tap in. I get it, Russell probably trusts himself and Gerso has been known to do an unnecessary jumping karate kick and send the ball over the bar by a mile. Oh how different of a game if SKC... what’s that? ...just finished their chances. The new attacking talent was supposed to fix that, but they weren’t on the field when it mattered.
The Refereeing (as usual) Wasn’t Great
This is a pretty weak excuse, but let’s look at it. Drew Fischer really let things go until very late when he started to hand out yellow cards like Halloween candy pre-pandemic. The game was very physical early and it took Sporting probably 70ish minutes to start playing rough back. Fischer was consistent, even if I didn’t care for some of his calls (or non-calls).
The VAR didn’t seem to have a great night, but it’s tough to know because FOX inexplicably was limited on replays of the plays that mattered.
The worst of the bunch though was the assistant referee on the near sideline. She was reportedly the AR of the year. To be fair, her bad calls started when it was already 2-0, so this is a really thin excuse, but she wasn’t great. The corner kick that setup the third goal should have never been as Ethan Finlay was well offside and then came very near the ball before backing off at the last moment to let an onside player get on the ball. The damage was done though as Dia had retreated when the flag didn’t go up on Finlay (SKC still shouldn’t have given up the corner kick goal though).
Several other times the AR struggled to call fouls (I can’t recall seeing her wave her flag for a foul once) despite Johnny Russel eating several stiff arms from Chase Gasper who would eventually get booked for a bad challenge. Usually hands/elbows to the face are carded, even if unintentional, which didn’t seem to be the case tonight. Even still, if he was sent off, the game likely is well out of hand before that happens.
Busio and Dia had Bad Games
I saw a fair amount of complaining about the substitutes online but I was good with the subs on the whole. The first two players out where Amadou Dia and Gianluca Busio. Both had fairly bad games with Dia making numerous bad touches and passes to start the second half and Busio just not seeming like the star he was during the regular season.
They will both learn and get better from this, but it was a bad time to not show up. Despite Busio’s late goal against the Earthquakes, I’d argue he mostly played bad in that game too. It doesn’t help that he plays so many different spots I’m sure, but mistakes in the midfield hurt pretty bad for a team that needs to dominate the midfield to win games.
The Defense Was Bad
I didn’t say they were good excuses. Mike Kuhn put it best when he talked about “static marking” on all three goals. The way the Minnesota front four interchange with each other will haunt the dreams of the back five (adding in Ilie Sanchez). Hell, when you look at replays, you see wingers and midfielders failing to stick with or pressure their man too.
On the whole, the team couldn’t keep track of Emanuel Reynoso and he got all three assists. He consistently found space and wasn’t under pressure when someone should have been glued to his hip all night. On top of that, runners came from everywhere and for 12 minutes at least, KC had no answers.
On the whole, the excuses are a bit silly and Minnesota were the better team. There is still lots of hope for 2021. Don’t burn it all down and calm down on your #FireVermes nonsense. We’ll talk a lot more about the positives in the coming days and months but until then, get all the venom out of your system (or go with a reasoned take) and keep the conversation going in the comments below.