Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. Sporting Kansas City

by on 6 October 2017

Round four of this Midwest slugfest comes with plenty to play for. Sporting Kansas City have yet to clinch a playoff spot and could do so with a win against Minnesota; in truth, they will almost certainly make the postseason and are hunting for better seeding at this point. Minnesota has not yet technically been eliminated from the postseason, but would need an incredible confluence of events to get them there; in truth, they are playing with an eye on next season. As much as either of those things, this is a battle for pride among two teams with a budding rivalry – not one manufactured at the league offices, but one built on history, proximity, and some especially needling results.

Recent form

Minnesota W L W W L +1
Kansas City L W W W D +3

Previous meetings

Minnesota has more exposure to Sporting Kansas City this year than any other team, playing them twice already in MLS play and once in the US Open Cup. The Loons earned what was arguably their most well-rounded win of the season at home to SKC, winning 2-0 in May, before turning around and putting in two consecutive weeks of clunkers on the road via 3-0 and 4-0 losses in MLS and Open Cup play. Minnesota will have those losses in mind as it tries to balance the scales of this rivalry with one last opportunity at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.


Referee Jose Carlos Rivero
Assistant Eric Boria
Assistant Felisha Mariscal
Fourth Sorin Stoica
VAR Kevin Terry Jr.

Jose Carlos Rivero has previously refereed the 2-2 draw against Vancouver and the 4-0 capitulation to Seattle for Minnesota this year. The 36-year-old American has softened from the blistering yellow card pace he set in the first half of the year, and has only awarded one red card since July 4th. Of the red cards he has given, five in all this year, most of them have come from second yellows, suggesting the official has a broader “orange card” range than some of his peers.

Roster report

Minnesota United
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head injury) – Out
D Michael Boxall (international duty) – Out
M Johan Venegas (international duty) – Out
M Kevin Molino (international duty) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
D Jermaine Taylor (international duty) – Out
D Marc Burch (thigh injury) – Questionable

Sporting Kansas City
F Cameron Porter (broken fibula and right ankle injury) – Out
D Matt Besler (international duty) – Out
M Benny Feilhaber (international duty) – Out
M James Musa (international duty) – Out
M Soni Mustivar (international duty) – Out
M Kevin Oliveira (international duty) – Out
F Soony Saad (international duty) – Out
D Graham Zusi (international duty) – Out

Tactical outlook

Another Sporting KC matchup, another game that is impossible to predict tactically because each team is depleted with international call-ups. While SKC is likely going to be missing more players key to their success, Minnesota has less depth to fall back on. All in all, it should make for exciting soccer even if it isn’t beautiful soccer.

The left side of the defense for the Loons will be an area of major question, as left back Marc Burch’s availability is uncertain, his replacement against Atlanta (Jermaine Taylor) will be with Jamaica, consistent left center back Francisco Calvo will be with Costa Rica, and occasional left center back Michael Boxall with be with New Zealand. The answers are few. Brent Kallman will almost have to start. Ismaila Jome will also need to start. The biggest decisions to watch for will be whether versatile full back Jérôme Thiesson will start at the right back or left back position, and whether Adrian Heath will deploy a typical four man back line or will go with something like a 3-5-2, variations of which we’ve seen this season when pressed for depth.

If there’s any good news to share for Minnesota defensively, it is that they picked a good game to have defensive questions. For all of SKC’s success this year, their offense has stagnated, currently sitting third worst in the Western Conference. That offense will likely not look any better missing key starters like playmaker Benny Feilhaber and overlapping full back Graham Zusi and playing on the road, also with one eye on a coming midweek game.

It would be a mistake to sleep on the attackers SKC does have at its disposal. Young players like Dániel Sallói and Latif Blessing have the makings of future stars, and Designated Players Roger Espinoza and Gerso Fernandes can make an impact on any given Saturday. The classic Peter Vermes style of playing a high press and closing down quickly is unlikely to go anywhere just because he is playing with some replacements, so the virtues of ten men playing defense and the straightforward, quick attack for Minnesota will be as important as ever.

As to how the Loons should approach the game with all this in mind, let’s rely on the words of Minnesota’s own website’s recap of the Houston loss last week. Two relevant quotes stand out. First, Adrian Heath on his team’s performance:

“We started reasonably well — a lot of possession. But once we got past the middle third of the field, didn’t have a threat all evening, I didn’t think.”

Next, the recap’s own assessment of the nature of the Loons’ attack:

“For their part, the Loons’ plan seemed to be to play for possession and hope for Houston to make a mistake out of desperation for the three points. Minnesota went into halftime with 60% of the possession but only two shots to Houston’s 10 and level with the home side in a scoreless draw.”

These pieces illustrate part of what has been, in my eyes, a frustrating clash between preferred style and reality for the Loons this year. Heath wants a possession-oriented side that can cleverly break down opponents. In reality, this team doesn’t have the tools in its kit to methodically pick the lock on opposing defenses. The club lacks a real No. 10, and its wingers are built for pace rather than dribbling and one-on-one confrontations.

Really, this is a team that shouldn’t win many possession battles. It doesn’t play to the strengths of the squad. That the club would sit on fully 60% of possession and be outshot two shots to ten is illustrative of this. An approach where the Loons own 40% of possession because they are moving upfield rapidly and creating imbalance in opposing defenses with player overloads in central zones would likely yield the most fruit. Yes, even at home.

How will it play out?

Sporting Kansas City will do its tight press thing, but from deeper positions than it typically does. This should create a bit of sloppy passing in the midfield. Minnesota, on the chances it breaks free of this pressure, should face lots of space to work with, especially on the wings. Expect an end-to-end game with plenty of chances, though tiki-taka this is not.

Sporting Kansas City will win if…

Minnesota has been especially vulnerable in set piece situations this year, whether taking them or defending them. If the visitors can capitalize on these opportunities, they can give the home side a hill to climb.

Minnesota will win if…

This is truly a very winnable game, all things considered. The club can succeed if it plays directly, quickly, and centrally. It will also be key that the defense does not get lured into playing too high or disorganized when Minnesota is in attack; Sporting Kansas City can pounce quickly on a counterattack, and this makeshift defense could be especially vulnerable to that.

One last thing

Minnesota needs to give up fewer than six goals in its remaining three games to keep off the record books as the worst defense in MLS history. The good (?) news is that whatever happens, the Galaxy are only one goal behind the Loons and could join them in ignominy this year.

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