The stats were known going into this game for Minnesota United FC. Not a single win in Children’s Mercy Park in seven tries. A game against the top remaining seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs in Sporting Kansas City. Another iteration of soccer’s friendliest rivalry, which at times has struggled to be a true rivalry.
This was a night of exorcising demons, and a marker to the remaining three teams in this tournament. While the Loons entered this game on a nine-game unbeaten run and had comfortably won their opening round game against Colorado, there were legitimate questions about the quality of the teams they had played against. A win over Sporting would add credibility to a team finding its hottest form of the year at the exact right time.
A win like this, though? A 3-0 lead by the 40th minute? A moderate Kansas City crowd, reduced to the sound of empty seats? A complete performance by each and every one of Minnesota’s 11 starters? Unbelievable, unprecedented and absolutely real.
And yet, if you looked past the initial sticker shock, it was believable. The connection between Emanuel Reynoso and Kevin Molino has been a point of emphasis since the end of the regular season, with the two only growing more comfortable and familiar with each others’ games. Two more assists from Reynoso to Molino, plus a third to Bakaye Dibassy’s head from a corner kick, remind the Loons and the league why Reynoso was their record-setting transfer fee.
Even before that, as Minnesota started shakily (as they so often do), with golden chances for Sporting in the first 20 minutes, who was there to save them? Michael Boxall, arguably the team MVP for the season, with a header off the goal line in the second minute, and Dayne St. Clair, whose legend continues to grow, with two immaculate saves back-to-back. St. Clair, for the second time this season, has a 300-plus minute shutout streak going, and he earned it in this first half.
The final piece for Minnesota all year has been health and availability. They have lost three presumed starters to injury for the season since March (assuming no remarkable appearance by Ike Opara in the next two games), and have had many others come and go. With Ozzie Alonso healthy enough to start and play more than 70 minutes for only the third time since August, and look every bit as critical to Minnesota as he was during their very best moments in 2019, they have every piece of what has become their best starting lineup at the most important time of the year for it.
Alonso’s fingerprints were all over this game. Minnesota first stabilized when Alonso, as he often does, dropped back into defense to direct traffic and let the Loons settle in possession. Molino’s opening goal? The move was started by Alonso cleaning up a mess in midfield from a St. Clair goal kick to quickly find Chase Gasper’s run. So much of Minnesota’s work with the ball started with an Alonso pass.
The effort on defense was team-wide. Ethan Finlay had very little to do in attack but was constantly tracking runs back into defense, almost playing even with Alonso and Jan Gregus for much of the game. Gasper spent much of his second half stifling Johnny Russell’s attempts to get past him and jumpstart Kansas City’s attack, to the chagrin of the south stand’s fans.
This win changes the paradigm for Minnesota. They are a complete team, who have demonstrated they can beat any team in the league, in their best form of the year, with everyone healthy that they need. They have won three straight games 3-0. They will be the underdog going into the Western Conference final in Seattle on Monday, but no one will write them off. This is a team that is capable of winning not just that game but of winning a championship. There is no more ceiling.