Minnesota United’s best win in club history was quickly overshadowed within days last December.
The Loons’ 3-0 upset of top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup Playoffs put Minnesota in the Western Conference final, where, four days later, a knife-twisting 3-2 loss to Seattle Sounders ended United’s season.
Since Minnesota joined MLS in 2017, the league has thrust Kansas City and Minnesota into its rivalry-week lineup and it continues at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when the Loons-Sporting match will be played at Allianz Field and aired on ESPN.
Despite having to swallow the loss to Minnesota for months last offseason, Sporting manager Peter Vermes looked perplexed when asked about this matchup being cast as a “rivalry.”
“Uh, rivalry, OK,” he said, before saying every team in league is a rival.
In the West semifinal last winter, Sporting had chances to score a few goals early but couldn’t convert. The Loons took advantage with three goals in 12 minutes and rode that hot streak to victory.
“I thought we were really good in the first 20 minutes and could have scored quite a few goals, but didn’t,” Vermes said Friday. “They did. We just never were a factor in the game. They were really good, for sure.”
This season, the sixth-place Loons (7-6-6) again look up in the standings at second-place Sporting (11-4-5). They will play twice more this season: in Kansas on Sept. 15 and back in St. Paul in the penultimate game of the season on Oct. 31.
“It looks as if they are going to be in the top four, so they are going to get home field advantage,” Loons manager Adrian Heath said. “The way things are, if we want to be the type of club that we want to be — which is consistently making the playoffs and progressing in the playoffs — I would think there is going to be more of them (playoff) games (vs. K.C.) down the road.”
Minnesota is 5-6-2 in all games against Sporting Kansas City, including a win during the Loons’ run to the U.S. Open Cup final in 2019. Their playoff win vs. Sporting followed five straight road losses in the series.
This season, K.C. leads the West with 36 goals scored, while Minnesota is ninth with 22 in 19 games.
Better from Hunou
Heath put his arm around new striker Adrien Hunou before the club left for San Jose, Calif., on Monday. The message?
“Basically, telling him that we still believe in him,” Heath said. “… We spoke about him trying to be natural — don’t overthink it, don’t over-complicate your game. I thought he did a lot better the other night.”
Hunou tallied his first assist for Minnesota in a 1-1 draw with the Earthquakes on Tuesday, but his scoring drought reach 538 minutes across eight games dating back to late June. The scouting/analytics site wyscout.com said Hunou has an expected goals of 2.22 during that dry spell.
After the match, Heath said on Bally Sports North that Hunou had “a lot more anger in his play.” Heath clarified Thursday that MLS center backs might be able to get away with more physical play than what Hunou faced in France’s Ligue 1.
“You can’t complain about it,” Heath said. “You’ve got to go, ‘OK, that is what goes on here.’ You’ve got to know it’s coming and you have to stand up to it.”
Hunou had an xG was 0.67 on Tuesday, the highest during his scoring skid. Hunou had a shot at the edge of the 6-yard box in the 52nd minute blocked. Hunou put his hands on his head in disbelief afterward.
“I thought his mentality was a little bit better the other night,” Heath said. “I think that helped his performance.”
Jan Gregus had an X-ray on his injured ankle Wednesday night and the central midfielder appears to be doubtful for Saturday.
“His ankle is badly bruised,” Heath said Thursday. “He went over on it. He has a bit of a sprain there.”
Chase Gasper missed the San Jose draw under COVID-19 protocols but the starting left back returned to training and will be available Saturday, Heath said. Backup goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair remained in COVID protocols on Thursday and didn’t train in Blaine.
The Loons will remain without three key wingers: Franco Fragapane (thigh) will miss a seventh straight game, but his rehab on grass has been progressing. Robin Lod (calf) and Niko Hansen (leg) will miss their third consecutive games. That pair was not seen working on side during training this week.
Midfielder Aziel Jackson is expected to go on loan to USL side North Carolina FC. The 19-year-old had a training stint with Forward Madison earlier this season. … Similar to other pro teams in the Twin Cities, MNUFC has not set a policy requiring vaccinations or a negative coronavirus test before entering Allianz Field. Some supporters have called for the Loons to do so. … Heath said it’s still to be determined what position Joseph Rosales is best suited for once he joins the first team. He has been rehabbing a recent knee injury and has played central and defensive midfield and left fullback in his career. “We know we’ve got a good soccer player,” Heath said. “We need to see him in games to see where he’s eventually going to settle down.” … Start time for the Loons’ Sept. 29 game vs. D.C. United, which acquired former Loons striker Ramon Abila last week, has been moved to 6:30 p.m.