For the first time since match play was suspended March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Soccer action will resume July 8 with the historic and unprecedented MLS is Back Tournament. This one-of-a-kind competition will see all 26 clubs descend on ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, marking the emphatic return of men's professional soccer in the United States after a near four-month hiatus.
As the opening match approaches, SportingKC.com is presenting a 20-day preview of the World-Cup style tournament from June 18 through July 7 called Countdown to MLS is Back presented by Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center.
Sporting Kansas City will kick off their Group D campaign on July 12 against rivals Minnesota United FC before facing the Colorado Rapids on July 17 and Real Salt Lake on July 22, with all three games shown live nationally on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. To visit the series homepage as it expands, head to SportingKC.com/MLSisBack.
Dates and times are set. Players know when they will be playing and fans know when and how they will be watching.
The MLS is Back Tournament schedule, complete with kickoff times and broadcast details, dropped on Wednesday, giving supporters the opportunity to plan plan accordingly for an unprecedented soccer event at Walt Disney World Resort.
For Manager Peter Vermes and Sporting, their Group D campaign will consist of three matches against Western Conference rivals, all of which will air live nationally on ESPN and count toward the 2020 regular season standings. In the next three editions of our tournament countdown, we'll scout out each of Sporting's group opponents. We begin today with Minnesota United FC, whom Sporting will face in their tournament opener on Sunday, July 12.
The Loons were among the most improved outfits in MLS last season, finishing fourth in the West and allowing just 43 goals after finishing 10th and conceding 71 in 2018. Former Sporting center back Ike Opara played an integral role shoring up the backline, winning MLS Defender of the Year honors for the second time in three seasons, while a balanced attack helped head coach Adrian Heath lift Minnesota into the playoff for the first time.
In addition to vaulting into the top half of the West, Minnesota advanced to the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before narrowly falling to Atlanta United FC. The Loons notably knocked Sporting out of the cup competition en route to the championship match.
A scintillating start to the campaign saw Minnesota record multi-goal road wins over the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. The 3-1 defeat of Portland included a brace from attacking midfielder Kevin Molino and a pair of Ethan Finlay assists. The Loons' 5-2 dismantling of San Jose a week later was even more impressive, with Opara scoring twice and heralded newcomer Luis Amarilla finding the back of the net for the second straight game.
If the first two fixtures of 2020 are any indication, last year wasn't an aberration for Minnesota. Heath has the pieces in place to build upon Minnesota's fourth-place finish in 2019 and, by extension, make a deep run in the MLS is Back Tournament.
Three players to watch
Defender Ike Opara: The reigning MLS Defender of the Year has resurrected a previously floundering Minnesota backline. He also has two goals to his name this season as a major set piece threat. At 31 years of age, Opara is among the most experienced players on the Loons roster.
Midfielder Kevin Molino: If not for a slew of serious injury setbacks, Molino would likely be a household name and established star in MLS. Three of his first five MLS seasons were cut short due to injury, but he still has 25 goals and 24 assists in 88 career regular season appearances. The 30-year-old began 2020 with aplomb, tallying two goals and an assist in wins against Portland and San Jose.
Forward Luis Amarilla: The 24-year-old Paraguayan striker is on loan from Argentine side Velez Sarsfield and appears to be quite the offseason pickup. After bagging 19 goals in 24 games for Universidad Catolica in Ecuador last season, Amarilla struck in each of his first two MLS appearances this year.
"I think Minnesota is a very good team in that they have a very good spine. It’s really strong and they have a lot of experience there. They’ve added not only experience, but guys that have been in our team quite a long time and have had success at different places. They’re strong in that regard."
Sporting and Minnesota have squared off 10 times in all competitions since the Loons joined MLS in 2017. Manager Peter Vermes' men own a 5-3-2 record in the fixture, with all five wins coming at Children's Mercy Park. The away team has yet to win a game in the series, although that shouldn't carry any weight as the clubs prepare for their neutral-site showdown next month.
The sides met three times in 2019, with an Open Cup battle followed by two late-season tilts in MLS play. Minnesota posted a 4-1 victory in the Open Cup Round of 32 last June as well as a 2-1 comeback home win in the regular season on Sept. 25. The lone matchup at Children's Mercy Park was decided in the 88th minute as Erik Hurtado struck to give Sporting a 1-0 triumph.
#SKCvMIN meetings (all competitions)
Sporting KC leads series 5-3-2
|05/07/2017||L 0-2||Away||MLS regular season|
|06/03/2017||W 3-0||Home||MLS regular season|
|06/14/2017||W 4-0||Home||Open Cup 4th Round|
|10/07/2017||T 1-1||Away||MLS regular season|
|05/20/2018||T 1-1||Away||MLS regular season|
|06/03/2018||W 4-1||Home||MLS regular season|
|08/25/2018||W 2-0||Home||MLS regular season|
|06/12/2019||L 1-4||Away||Open Cup 4th Round|
|08/22/2019||W 1-0||Home||MLS regular season|
|09/25/2019||L 1-2||Away||MLS regular season|