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Sporting KC enter Minnesota with weary legs, leave with a mighty task

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Returns by Salloi and Mauri highlight Sunday contest.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Minnesota United FC David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City had been dominant much of the time in their recent 2-1 victory at Seattle Sounders and 2-0 win at home over LA Galaxy. Eighty minutes into their noon Sunday tilt at Minnesota United FC, tired legs had dominated. Passes off the mark. Stale ideas. A lull in energy. Thus, Sporting Manager Peter Vermes made three subs late in the match. Would it be enough to salvage points for a regular season Western Conference championship?

Seven points in their last three matches. That was top-sitting Sporting Kansas City’s goal for assuring a top finish in MLS’s Western Conference for the 2021 season. The gaining of that, a first-round playoff bye, and home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs began Sunday at Minnesota United FC’s Allianz Field.

As in the previous two matches, both wins over playoff clubs, Kansas City was without top goal scorer Daniel Salloi (although he was available on the bench) and first-choice striker Alan Pulido against the Loons, who sat in 8th place at the start of the match, just a tiebreaker from the last playoff spot and just a win from 5th place in the close confines of the West. Would Minnesota’s creative force Emmanuel Reynoso lead his side into playoff position with only one match remaining? Or would current MLS Player of the Week Johnny Russell score in his 9th straight game to put Sporting closer to a permanent reign at the top?

Cameron Duke was inserted into the midfield by Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes in place of Ilie Sanchez, who dropped back to right center back to give Nicholas Isimat-Mirin a rest after the oft-injured Frenchman started the last two matches.

Russell was called upon in the 8th minute, not for his ninth match marker on a row, but an assist. Off a corner won by striker Gadi Kinda, Sporting played short from Kinda to Duke back to Kinda. Kinda’s ball floated to Russell at the back post. The Scot nodded the ball to left winger Khiry Shelton’s feet at the six-yard box with such precision the finish became elementary. A flick of Shelton’s foot later, Sporting was up 1-0 on the near-desperate Loons.

Yet, Minnesota was growing into the match. They struck in the 20th minute. Reynoso put in a low cross that was deflected by midfielder Adrien Hunou, then knocked down by Robin Lod, before Franco Fragapane struck a crisp volley in front of Sporting defender Andreu Fontas and at Tim Melia’s goal. Melia got a hand on it, but the ferocity, and perhaps the strong fall sun at a blinding angle, willed the ball into the net to level the match.

The late-middle of the half saw Sporting steal or intercept often, but just as often, lose the ball via strip, too many touches, or poor decisions on the ball. All were opportunities missed to put the pressure on the hosts and re-take control of the match.

Thus, it was in the 35th minute that Melia had to come to the rescue. A near post in-swinging corner was expertly met by Minnesota’s Bakaye Dibassy. Melia reacted with lightning quickness to bat the ball away at the near post and keep his struggling side level.

Then, Reynoso, with a delicate touch and a somewhat-pleading fall to the pitch, drew a penalty from Ilie. The Argentine saw Melia lean strongly left and struck a cheeky Panenka from the spot to put Minnesota in front six minutes from the break.

Vermes lamented Sporting’s open shape in the midfield during a halftime interview on the ESPN broadcast. Further tactical adjustments were made in the 55th minute as Salloi came on for Duke, sending Shelton to the #9 and Kinda to midfield as Salloi took up on the left wing.

Through the 63rd minute, Sporting’s connections remained a bit off, perhaps a result of playing in their fourth match in 14 days, three of them on the road.

Melia answered a Hunou header attempt with a strong save in the 66th, then a thunder volley from Wil Trapp labeled for the right corner was blocked by his own player the next minute. Minnesota was threatening to run away with the needed three points.

Nothing changed for Sporting for the next 15 minutes, so Vermes called on his bench. Jose Mauri, Grayson Barber, and Amadou Dia entered for Roger Espinoza, Shelton, and Luis Martins respectively.

However, no attacks were sustained and the match found its weary end.

Sporting no longer solely controls their fate, though two wins in the final two should capture the West due to goal differential (currently a delicate +1) over Seattle Sounders. But little rest for their two last matches, which will now surely involve scoreboard watching, will be Kansas City’s situation Wednesday at Austin FC and Sunday at home to Real Salt Lake.