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Shaking out Sporting KC v Minnesota United: Who has the advantage?

Forgive me for feeling nostalgic this week as we stare MLS Decision Day in the face… all week.



Thad Bell Photography

Forgive me for feeling nostalgic this week as we stare MLS Decision Day – and Sporting Kansas City’s 2023 regular season fate – in the face… all week.

I’m also feeling that nervous excitement. (You too?) I can’t wait for Saturday night, but hesitation tugs at my mind. Those first 15 minutes are going to be stomach clenching. If my stomach survives, we will see if my head and heart survive the other 75+.

Head and heart. They often pull in opposite directions. That’s the torture of the lead up to Decision Day.

Back to that nostalgia. See here.

That article was written about three years ago in the lead up to Sporting Kansas City hosting Minnesota United in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinal. It was prophetic, to my chagrin. And the 0-3 loss set in motion the current rancor and cynicism of many fans that set in over the next few years:

2021 – Lost 0-1 to Real Salt Lake on Decision Day, at home, the last gasp of a late season oh-for-three collapse that ended in a drop to 3rd in the playoff seeding, instead of claiming the #1 seed with just one win.

Lost 1-2 to Real Salt Lake in Western Conference Semifinal (again), at home (again).

2022 – A 12th place finish, out of the playoffs.

And, uh, welcome to what’s in my head.

It was only the first. And one. But, what a win.

Saturday, October 7, 2023, saw Minnesota United host Los Angeles Galaxy in Minnesota’s first match since kicking Manager Adrian Heath to the curb, the only manager the seven-year-old franchise had known.

The 5-2 victory was United’s only win in their last eight MLS matches. But how they won was eerily reminiscent of the strong late-season and playoff form of the 2020 club. The hosts had 24 shots, created seven corners, and as their attack slanted right on the night, they created their highest expected Goals (xG) tally of the season at 2.8 xG.

Tilting the scale

It is true that Minnesota does not ping the ball around the pitch with as much precision and pace as Kansas City can, or (sometimes) does. Yet, the Loons are more direct and purposeful with their ball movement, their off-the-ball movement, and their precise, sometimes artful decisiveness near goal. It’s no wonder that Minnesota is 4th in MLS in number of passes into the penalty area according to

Minnesota played out of a 4-2-3-1 setup against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and in a one-off battle for the playoffs with both teams needing a win and some help to advance, there is no reason to believe The Loons will tuck their wings in and glide on the surface. Taking flight will be the objective. The dual pivot in front of the back four and in support of the three attacking midfielders will not only help outnumber Sporting in the midfield, but it will also allow the front four to attack relentlessly.

In his article “Playoff hopefuls: 10 players who will decide Decision Day |” contributor Joseph Lowery analyzed this weekend’s match this way:

“SKC’s front three should have chances in the open field. But in turn, so should Minnesota United’s attacking group (which, for my money, is the more dangerous one in this matchup). Because of Minnesota’s threat with Emanuel Reynoso, Teemu Pukki and Bongokuhle Hlongwane, Kansas City can’t just cross their fingers and hop into a firefight. No, they’ll have to be sharp in defensive transition and organized in their rest defense structure.

Much of that responsibility will fall on veteran defensive midfielder Nemanja Radoja. Playing as the base of midfield in Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3, Radoja’s defensive timing and his spacing may define SKC’s half of this game.

Because SKC typically play with a single pivot, Reynoso could unbalance their midfield shape by drifting into the half-spaces – just behind the opposing No. 8 and just to the side of the No. 6. If he finds the right cracks off the ball and then pushes the right buttons on it, Minnesota United will be hard to stop.”

Simple fact: Reynoso can go star-mode at any moment, for any match. Kansas City has no threat on that level, no one who can consistently dominate in a variety of aspects. In the playoffs – or Decision Day matches – those players tilt the scale.

For further reference, the two sides’ latest matchup on Saturday, September 16, saw Minnesota concede possession, yet they outshot Sporting 14-6 and out xG’d them 1.7 to 0.9. The 1-0 Sporting win required the Sporting’s Save of the Year from goalkeeper Tim Melia, a 66th minute goal-line glance of a United chance off Jake Davis’ head as he turned away from the ball, a slightly offside United goal called back, and a late winner from Kansas City substitute Gadi Kinda.

One in the same?

Kansas City and Minnesota share some soccer DNA: some of it is random coincidence (the clubs are nearly even on set piece goals on the season at 8-7, respectively, and are even on goals scored for the season), some by design.

Like Sporting via the ever-improving-in-attack left back Logan Ndenbe and right back Jake Davis, Minnesota’s backs get up the field to supplement the attack. In contrast, The Loons’ backs often cut inside early on the counter to see the field, open up options, and draw the defense. In that way – and because Pukki (Finland), Hlongwane (South Africa), and Reynoso (Argentina), are strong one-on-one attackers who excel at finding gaps – Sporting’s likely center backs Andreu Fontas and Dany Rosero may be more tested than wide backs Ndenbe and Davis on the defensive.

However, like Kansas City, pushing numbers forward makes United susceptible on the counter. In that October 7th match, the Galaxy were able to threaten in a gaping space behind The Loons’ midfield in front of their back four. Thus, the Galaxy’s xG of 3.0.

The question then becomes, which side is more effective on the counterattack? On the season, Minnesota has six counterattack goals according to Sporting has zero.

Pishy Caca

In battle Saturday night (8:09 Kickoff at Children’s Mercy Park), recent results will not be in the players’ minds. Recent results will have little impact on individual actions in the moment.

However, recent results do impact the spirit of a team. And although Minnesota black-holed the Galaxy two Saturdays ago in their last match and Kansas City beat Real Salt Lake on the road, Kansas City has the advantage here. In the last eight games, Sporting has earned five wins against three losses, including a 4-2 record over teams currently in playoff position. Minnesota has just the Galaxy win to go with three draws and four losses.

But it’s more than that. “We have a chance [to get into the playoffs] because of what you guys have done.”

Sporting Kansas City fans know the story: First 10 = 0-7-3. Since = 11-7-5.

The feel around this club is one of belief. Not just an emotion, but an energy. An energy put into action. That action was turning back St. Louis CITY at home after an initial humiliating 4-0 loss in St. Louis. The gutsy 1-0 win at Minnesota. The 3-2 win at Real Salt Lake in the face of elimination. And Sporting did recently battle top-seeded St. Louis, at St. Louis, toe-to-toe for 70 minutes, lest we forget. That energy is in the collective heart. If things go wrong, Sporting are prepared to navigate. More importantly, they know how to navigate rough waters and rocky terrain.

Yes, the match may come down to tracking Reynoso in between lines, in the half spaces, to hopefully contain him and his fellow attackers. Yes, the match may come down to a goalkeeper war: Tim Melia v Dayne St. Clair. It will come down to how one club who is better at home (SKC 8-6-2) performs against one club who is better on the road (MNUFC 6-8-2).

“The race is not given to the swift or to the strong but to the one who endures to the end.” Ecclesiastes 9:11

Sporting has endured to the end.

No excuses

Nevertheless, this time, there are no excuses: Unlike 2020 and 2021, talismanic striker Alan Pulido is healthy and in good form (and his forays into the midfield will help counter Minnesota’s numbers). The team is in the best health it has been all season, and they are playing well (despite some inconsistencies).

No excuses.

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