The MLS hype machine occasionally will try to oversell the importance of certain matches or events, including pitching rivalries that really aren’t there (there are many examples, but here’s the latest). However, Minnesota and Kansas City have a bit of history, and can be said to have as much of a rivalry as two teams that have never played each other in MLS can have.
Most recently, Sporting traveled to Blaine for the 2016 US Open Cup, emerging with a 2-1 victory. Two years earlier, Minnesota lost in Kansas City after a harsh red card to Cristiano Dias reduced the Loons to 10 men. In 2009, the then-Wizards played the then-Thunder in a thrilling 3-3 Open Cup draw that ended with Kansas City winning 4-2 on penalties. Finally, the Wizards were felled by the Thunder 3-1 in Kansas City during Minnesota’s glorious 2005 Open Cup run.
The bad blood may be mostly one-sided, as the lower tier Minnesota teams have seen the worst of this history. A home win Sunday against a great Sporting side might apply at least a little balm to the wounds of long time Minnesota faithful.
Irishman Alan Kelly will be pweeping the whistle between the lines Sunday. He manned last year’s MLS Cup and is below the average in terms of both fouls and misconducts given this year. He also tends to command the respect of players with his calls, offering only one yellow card for dissent so far in a year which has featured an increased glut of such calls across the league.
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
M Collin Martin (something) – Doubtful
M Rasmus Schüller (hip flexor) – Questionable
Sporting Kansas City
F Diego Ruben (torn ACL) – Out
Minnesota fans are in the very relative promised land of no longer saying “well at least we didn’t…” At this point, competent results and even points are a reasonable, expected norm and one can be genuinely disappointed when the team doesn’t win rather than counting meager blessings.
United had some issues against San Jose, but in revisiting the drawing board this week, they need only to make tweaks rather than buy a new drawing board. For the second straight week, the Loons were too contemplative on the ball. This space has argued several times that, whatever has been said about head coach Adrian Heath’s taste for possession-centric soccer, Minnesota has looked best when it overloads zones and plays fast, keeping defenses from getting properly organized in the face of clever combination play and speedy build up. In general, so long as the passing is accurate and the touches are decent, a faster speed of play will benefit offenses more than it will benefit defenses.
As Alex Schieferdecker recommended in this week’s “Three Things” piece, Miguel Ibarra had a better week playing quick passes and running at defenses than his attacking peers Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino did sitting on the ball, taking dribbles, and trying to eye the next perfect pass. This goes doubly when a defense applies immediate pressure on the ball the way San Jose did last week and the way Sporting Kansas City will this week; holding onto the ball only gives more opportunity for the defense to employ that pressure.
However, there were some bright spots that United will want to build on as well. Despite allowing a goal, Minnesota’s defense continues to look very competent, spearheaded by a much improved Francisco Calvo who finds himself stepping up to his man at the right times and winning his tackles better than he has all year. Brent Kallman is good for one white-knuckle tackle inside the box each game and continues to shine. Finally, Ibson had his most complete game in MLS against San Jose, not only applying himself on both sides of the ball but also by hitting cross-field switches of play throughout the game to try to spread the Earthquakes’ compact defense a bit wider to create some space. This switch of play approach may be the right tactic against the defensively similar Kansas City.
One potential silver lining for Minnesota is that Sporting will almost certainly use this game to do a bit of squad rotation. Kansas City played a Wednesday night game this week in which head coach Peter Vermes opted not to bring in a single substitute until second half stoppage time despite having a 2-0 lead. Combine that with the fact that Minnesota is perhaps considered a soft opponent, and it looks like the Loons might be able to take advantage of some less tested squad players.
Not quite knowing whom Kansas City will play makes a tactical analysis of the game challenging from their perspective, but we know from years with Vermes at the head of Kansas City that the general approach is unlikely to change regardless of personnel. Sporting will deploy a press across all parts of the pitch, including from the forward players, and will attempt to move the ball very quickly once they get it back. Athleticism is the hallmark of a Sporting side, and this crew is no different.
The defense is, of course, the star for the visitors. Ike Opara is putting forth about as close a case for MVP as a defender can make in this league, and when he is taken on one-on-one, he simply doesn’t lose. Matt Besler remains a great center back in MLS despite falling somewhat out of favor in the USMNT. Graham Zusi has found his stride once again after being moved to the right back position (yes, this means Kansas City has two Designated Players in its defense). Finally, goalkeeper Tim Melia has been heroic between the posts; in truth, when analyzing his opponents’ expected goals and other metrics, he appears to be unsustainably successful, but credit goes to him for his incredible play.
Despite a mediocre goals total so far this year, Sporting does have the offensive pieces to beat a team that is not up to the task. Forward Dom Dwyer sits on five goals after a brace on Wednesday and will attempt to put defenders on their heels with direct runs and very physical jostling up top. Below him, Benny Feilhaber has seen a career resurgence since joining Kansas City several years ago and has a knack for hitting a perfectly weighted ball in the small spaces few others pick out. Really, the type of game Sporting plays so well – dispossessing opponents then moving quickly and directly at their defense – may be the same formula which would be successful against them as well.
When one mediocre offense meets an improving defense, and another slumping offense meets a stalwart defense, the air is ripe for a low scoring game. Coupled with the generally aggressive style Kansas City has shown on all sides of the ball, this game may be a pitcher’s duel. If history is any indication, it may be a chippy one at that.
Minnesota is in a slight offensive slump right now. If Sporting can score early and get the Loons chasing the game, hitting a few too many speculative long balls and getting winded early, one goal may be all it takes to grab three road points.
If you thought it was harsh calling Sporting’s offense mediocre, consider that eight of the team’s eleven goals this year came against either San Jose, Colorado, or Real Salt Lake. Only this week against the Red Bulls did Kansas City score more than one goal against a team one can consider consistently competent. The opportunity is there for Minnesota, especially at home. The question becomes exactly how much like the other cellar dwellers Minnesota really is.
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Tags: Benny Feilhaber, Brent Kallman, Colorado Rapids, Dom Dwyer, Francisco Calvo, Graham Zusi, Ibson, Ike Opara, Johan Venegas, Kevin Molino, Matt Besler, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, sporting Kansas City, Tim Melia