Minnesota United’s road form this season has been nightmare fuel. After a win over Orlando City in their second match of the season, United have lost each of their last four road matches. The combined score of those four games is 11-3.
The visit to Sporting Kansas City was never likely to be easy: United were lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw at home on May 20, and Children’s Mercy Park has been anything but merciful to the Loons with two crushing defeats in 2017.
The script ran true on Sunday night as United slumped to another road defeat, a 4-1 scoreline that saw Kansas City attempt 25 shots and run roughshod over a United team that made just one change from the win over Montreal.
That was the necessary substitution of Brent Kallman for Francisco Calvo, who is traveling with the Costa Rican national team.
The opening act of the show in Kansas was Minnesota’s tried and true recipe this season: an early goal for the opposition. United had very little possession, KC’s attackers were given too much space and Dániel Sálloi hit a rocket into the top corner less than 10 minutes in.
While it looked like the rout could be on at even that early stage, the response from United was immediate and from the most surprising source possible. Tyrone Mears, who had two career MLS goals entering the game, sized up a shot from the edge of the 18-yard box and smashed it past Tim Melia to tie the score.
United settled into their usual comfort zone of ceding possession to play on the counterattack, which has proven successful with the personnel on the team. The issue in this case was the space Kansas City was awarded to go with the ball, most notably Graham Zusi, one of SKC’s most decorated and threatening players historically.
Throughout the first half, Zusi seemed to always have the ball inside the right side of Minnesota’s 18-yard box, with enough space to pick whatever pass or shot he wanted. United’s back four did a decent job of fighting off the last-ditch attempts, but there was no sustainability to the strategy.
The second feature of the United road experience was two goals in quick succession. While the first early goal was isolated, the double came as first Wan Kuzain, then Cristian Lobato found openings through the frantic defense to put the Loons two goals down.
Kuzain’s goal was particularly egregious in regards to Zusi. Zusi received a pass out wide with yards upon yards of space, the attempt to tackle the ball away was easily evaded, and it didn’t matter that the pass into the box was deflected. It was so close range that the deflection was easy for Kuzain, a 19-year-old making his second career MLS appearance.
In each of United’s four previous away games including Sunday, they have given up two goals with gaps of three minutes, two minutes, six minutes and three minutes.
Allowing the first is bad, immediately allowing a second is egregious.
“We never came to terms with their wide guy coming in field and their full back going wide, and we allowed them too much space to do that,” Adrian Heath said after the game. “They put too many balls in our box, and I don’t think we defended it really well.”
Heath’s choice to remove Alexi Gómez in favor of Maximiano at halftime appeared to solidify United for a few minutes.
“Down that left-hand side, whether it was a lack of communication, I don’t know,” Heath said. “You can’t allow Graham Zusi, who’s played most of his life in the attacking third, and that was time and space that we did. I just thought that if we got another guy in midfield, that would allow the wide guy to get a little bit closer to him.”
Maximiano’s substitution lifted United temporarily, but his individual play and decision-making were the very next thing to go very wrong.
Maximiano received a yellow card within four minutes of entering the game for a late tackle, and a second equally late and unnecessary tackle in the 63rd minute was justifiably punished with another yellow card.
Maximiano was off, United were down to 10 men and the consolidation was over.
For the 18 minutes that Maximiano was on the pitch, Kansas City registered just one attempt at goal, a miss by Seth Sinovic in the 52nd minute, and Darwin Quintero and Christian Ramirez both had missed opportunities to close the gap.
The substitution worked, but Maximiano’s decision making did not.
“I thought actually we started the second half quite well,” Heath said. “Even though it’s 3-1, you’re thinking if you get the next goal, you can make a game of that. Obviously, the sending off for Maxi was the killer blow for us.
“In his determination to want to impress, I don’t think he gave the referee much alternative to send him off. It was so open and blatant and he doesn’t really need to go and try and win the ball. He was goal side, he could have let him run into him anyway. He doesn’t need to make the foul, he doesn’t need to make the challenge.”
The final goal by substitute Diego Rubio was just the cherry on top for Kansas City in the last ten minutes. Heath had already subbed Quintero out, and while United could have had a late goal through Miguel Ibarra and Abu Danladi, both were unable to finish a clear breakaway against Melia.
“We are not good enough on the road to defend like we’ve done tonight,” Heath said. “Certainly at home, I think we’re more than competitive. Away from home, that’s not been the case yet, and we have to change that.”
“The performance was nowhere near good enough,” defender and captain Michael Boxall said after the game. “As a team, we’ve showed we can do it at home. It’s easy, we’ve got the crowd behind us. But then, on the road, it’s just nowhere near good enough.”
United have a quick turnaround to their opening US Open Cup fixture on Wednesday night against FC Cincinnati, and will not play another MLS game until June 23 at Colorado, a two-week break that may be good for the team.
“I know, me personally, I’m looking forward to the break, I know a lot of the guys are, so all of the focus is on this next game,” Kallman said. “We know that we have days off afterwards, so there’s no excuses. Everybody’s gotta be focused on Wednesday.”
“You want to head into those breaks on a good note, so we’ve gotta win on Wednesday,” Boxall said. “It just feels disgusting right now to come off, not exactly the result, but just the performance. We sold ourselves way short of where we should be.”