Once again, in this wildly erratic season of strange pauses and congested weeks, Minnesota United travel on short notice. After losing to the first place Seattle Sounders on Saturday the team heads south today to play second place Sporting Kansas City. “I’d probably settle for four, before the week started, four or five points?” head coach Adrian Heath mused after Saturday’s loss to Seattle. But “we’ve still got an opportunity,” he continued, “We know it’s going to be tough… Going away to Seattle, going away to Kansas and then having Galaxy at home is not ideal at times. Three good teams that we’ve got coming up in a very short period of time.” If Minnesota started this run of games, their biggest week of the season, looking up the table - with a chance to make up ground on three of the four teams ahead of them in the standings at the time - they now must be more worried of those team’s coming up on them from below. With their loss to Seattle and the Portland Timbers’ win over the Vancouver Whitecaps the Loons fell to 6th place in the West and are now only 2 points clear of 9th place Vancouver and 5 points clear of 11th place FC Dallas.
In addition to keeping an eye on the standings, Minnesota will also continue to keep an eye on its training room. After Franco Fragapane, Joseph Rosales, and Ján Greguš were available on Saturday it seems that Robin Lod and Emanuel Reynoso will also now be available tonight. Like Greguš, who is still struggling through his foot injury, Lod and Reynoso are not yet fully fit, but they all could see some time against Kansas City. Unfortunately, after appearing in all 22 of the Loons games this season, Hassani Dotson will be unavailable after developing a problem in his knee during the Seattle game. Also unavailable on the night will be Ozzie Alonso and Chase Gasper, both serving out yellow card accumulation suspensions, as well as Juan Agudelo, Niko Hansen, and Justin McMaster who are getting closer to full health but still out. All of which will require some patience and restraint, if not a bit of unexpected creativity, from MNUFC. With 6 points available it would be easy to rush back not yet fully fit players, forgetting that the season is long and not yet done, even as ending this week with three or fewer points could make the remainder of the season quite difficult, no matter how long it is. With a reluctance to deviate from a preferred road 4-3-3, it is hard, again, to know where the creativity and structure for Minnesota will come from on a tough mid-week game on the road.
The last time these two teams met, mid-season and at Allianz Field, the greatest rivalry in sports actually felt like a rivalry. After Remi Walter picked up a straight red card in the 21st minute, off a silly and reckless if not entirely dangerous foul, a quite entertaining game slowed to a disappointing but fair draw. Since then, Sporting has tied the Colorado Rapids, been humiliated by LAFC, and handled the Chicago Fire after going two goals up in the first six minutes. They have also brought José Mauri in as a possible replacement for young Homegrown phenom Gianluca Busio, who was traded earlier in the season to Italian Serie A side Venezia FC and now gets to wear the most beautiful jersey in soccer. Mauri, who got his first goal with the team and posted a ridiculous 91.4% pass completion rate against Chicago, is still not quite fully up to speed and so may get a rest tonight. Unlike most other teams in the league, Kansas City are relatively healthy and so have the luxury, rarely used by head coach Peter Vermes, of resting and rotating their players. The only major injury concern for Sporting is forward Alan Pulido. With 8 goals and 3 assists on the season his presence would be greatly missed but after taking a knock in their last game Vermes may have an eye on the final push of the season and opt to start their star on the bench. Even without Pulido, Sporting’s offense will still have Dániel Sallói who is having an MVP calliber season and is second in MLS in combined goals and assists (12 and 6, respectively). Fielding a solid if not spectacular defense that has the ability to control the pace of the game from the back, and the ever present threat of Sallói and the hard nosed effort of captain Johnny Russell up front, the final push of the season is starting to look good for Kansas City.
With their leading goal scorer and key playmaker only recently cleared to play, their DP striker struggling to find his form as he works to find his role on the field, and their left side winger starting only his eighth game of the season, Minnesota has had to rely on a stout defense to get back into this season. And their defense, even with its own rotating cast of players, has mostly been up to the task. But Minnesota comes into tonight’s game struggling to find their form, having won only once in their last five and twice in their last eight.
Kansas City, meanwhile, looks poised to set up another strong playoff run. Sitting two points behind Seattle in the West, Vermes has his team back in the conversation for best team in the league. And, except for the Kevin Molino-Emanuel Reynoso inspired rout in the 2020 MLS Cup Conference Semifinals, Sporting remains undefeated against the Loons at Children’s Mercy Park.
Minnesota has spoken often this season of their resilience and fight, of their ability to salvage a season after an 0-4 start and their ability to come back in late games. Tonight, it seems, they will need every bit of that tenacity. If they show up with anything less, against an in-form, tactically disciplined, and hard working team, they may end this promising week looking up at the playoff line.
Sporting Kansas City:
Felipe Hernandez - out (personal reasons)
Jaylin Lindsey - out (hamstring)
Alan Pulido - questionable (knee)
Minnesota United FC:
Ozzie Alonso - suspended (yellow card accumulation)
Chase Gasper - suspended (yellow card accumulation)
Juan Agudelo - out (thigh)
Hassani Dotson - out (knee)
Niko Hansen - out (groin)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)
Robin Lod - questionable (calf)