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How to beat the (away game) Blues

Reflections from 180 minutes of Sporting KC or how to finally win an away game

Goal celebration
Christian Ramirez, Darwin Quintero, and Eric Miller celebrate after Darwin Quintero scores a goal during Minnesota United's 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City
Tim C McLaughlin

This weekend the Loons fly south to take on familiar foes Sporting Kansas City. The Loons played SKC two weeks ago to the tune of a 1-1 draw and have a chance to steal a few points off the Western Conference leaders. Minnesota United received a boost in their hopes to come away with at least a point as Sporting will be without mercurial winger Johnny Russell when he represents his country this weekend. Interestingly enough, Sam Nicholson’s name was also thrown around as a potential replacement after several other Scottish players withdrew from the international roster for a variety of injuries and impending fatherhoods.

Last week I had the opportunity to watch SKC in person, a bit of advance scouting if you will. Combine those in-person observations with the previous week’s Derby and a dash of searching YouTube for “MLS SKC vs...” and I’ve come away with five key points for the Loons to take a bite out of the Barbecue Capital of the World.

  1. Silence the Crowd:

Children’s Mercy Park is about the same size as Allianz Field will be next year and engineered to trap in sound. The Cauldron is the name of Supporter’s Stand at Children’s Mercy and when Sporting has the ball, its rocking. The first 20 minutes of the game and for every SKC attack every fan in that section is on their feet and singing. A sustained spell of possession or a few shots in quick succession for the visitors, however, and the decible level drops. Sporting feeds off the crowd and the crowd feeds off of Sporting. If one of them struggles or gets frustrated, as with their 0-0 draw against 10-man Columbus last week, the other suffers.

2. Get Multiple Runners into the Box:

Two weeks ago, 5’5” Darwin Quintero won a header in the box against SKC. Not only that, he won the second ball uncontested en route to prodding the ball over the line for his equalizer. For the sake of comparison, Ike Opara is 6’2” and Matt Besler is 6’0”. 6’2” Christian Ramirez will always be marked by opponents in the box and attracted one defender, but Quintero floated free to win a header, unchallenged. The same thing happened several times last week against Columbus. One or both defenders would get sucked under the ball or to one player and leave a second runner free. Ibson’s goal against Chicago and Quintero’s SKC goal are great examples of late runs into the box, so if the Loons can get the timing down they could nick a few goals against an otherwise stingy defense.

Darwin Goal
Darwin Quintero sneaks one by Tim Melia during Minnesota United's 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City
Tim C McLaughlin

3. Cover the cutback:

Time and time again against Columbus, especially after the red card, SKC doubled up the outside backs and played balls into the corner of the endline and the 18. Zusi on the right is a converted winger with a great delivery and on the left will either be the more defensive Seth Sinovic or another converted winger in Cristian Lobato. Defensively the Loons will need to ensure their wingers are tracking back and helping out Eric Miller and Jerry. Should they get beat and SKC gets the ball to their favored crossing position, a centerback would have to drop and cover the cross and a midfielder would slide into the open space. With Calvo gone and Kallman presumably coming in for only his second start of the season, the rotation and communication between outside backs, center backs and center midfielders will be crucial. Some of that will fall on captain Michael Boxall and some of it will fall on Shuttleworth to command the defense and keep them organized.

SKC repeatedly targets the areas marked in red

4. Counter Wide:

Part of being at home as one of the best teams in the league is that you expect to dominate possession. The Loons shouldn’t be going into this game expecting to have a lot of the ball, but they also shouldn’t openly back off and give Sporting all the space and time they want. When they do pick off the ball, there will be gaps to exploit. The only problem will be finding them and getting the ball into the right areas to take advantage. The midfield three of Espinoza, Ilie, and Croizet line up in a flat triangle with Ilie at the base and Croizet a few steps higher than Espinoza. On turnovers in the midfield, Croizet will put pressure on the ball coming back, but not push higher on the center backs. The wings and outside backs stay high and leave space in the channels. Despite his small stature, Quintero has shown his ability to work the ball out of tight spaces, something that could be critical in preventing SKC from winning the ball back right away. If the Loons can avoid Croizet’s pressure over the top and work the ball into the wings for Ibarra and Gomez there will be a lot of space to run into and put the center under pressure.

5. Expect a fight(just don’t throw any punches):

This goes without saying, but Sporting won’t be going quietly. They have dropped four points in their last two games, two from a winning position against the Loons and two with a man advantage against Columbus. SKC expects to win every home game and goes into every 50/50 expecting to win it. The red card last week to Columbus came from Espinoza putting his foot in the way of a loose touch and winning the ball where he didn’t have any right to. If the Loons want to get anything out of this game they should expect a hard fought game from Sporting. Club Captain Francisco Calvo’s testimonial against Montreal last week would not be out of place on Sunday and if the rest of the squad can put in that type of gritty display this week there’s no reason we can’t pull off the upset.

May 20, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward, Minnesota United defender, Michael Boxall (15) holds back Sporting KC forward, Daniel Salloi (20) during the Minnesota United vs Sporting KC match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
May 20, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward, Minnesota United defender, Michael Boxall (15) holds back Sporting KC forward, Daniel Salloi (20) during the Minnesota United vs Sporting KC match at TCF Bank Stadium. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

I’ll be live Minnesota United takes on Sporting KC Sunday evening at Children’s Mercy Park so follow us on Twitter @epluribusloonum for live reactions, game updates, and the hottest of hot takes.