A pair of familiar foes are about to renew their regional rivalry in the grandest stage yet, with top-seeded Sporting Kansas City hosting No. 4 seed Minnesota United FC in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday at Children's Mercy Park.
The monumental showdown is slated for 7:31 p.m. CT with national television coverage on FOX and FOX Deportes, live streaming on the FOX Sports app and local radio broadcasts on ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.
As Manager Peter Vermes' men prepare for Thursday's test against against the red-hot Loons, we provide a playoff scouting report of Minnesota in the space below. Let's jump right in.
Recent form: No team boasts a longer active unbeaten run than the Loons, who have claimed five wins and four draws since their most recent loss on Sept. 23 to Columbus Crew SC. By the time Sporting and Minnesota take the field on Thursday, exactly 70 days will have elapsed since the Loons last suffered defeat. This impressive run of form includes a 3-0 dismantling of the Colorado Rapids in Round One of the playoffs, which saw Minnesota collect their first-ever playoff win behind a Kevin Molino brace and three assists from midfield talisman Emanuel Reynoso.
Midfield game-changers: As mentioned above, Molino and Reynoso are part of a stellar Minnesota midfield corps that also features European internationals Jan Gregus and Robin Lod as well as MLS veteran Ethan Finlay. Molino and Lod are more attack-minded and sometimes assume all-out forward roles, Finlay provides quality service from the wings, Reynoso is a traditional No. 10 as the team's chief playmaker, and Gregus adds a layer of defensive cover while also facilitating forays into the final third.
That's not to mention deep-lying destroyer Osvaldo Alonso, who led Seattle to an MLS Cup in 2016 and rivals Roger Espinoza as one of the league's toughest stalwarts. Alonso has battled an injury bug in receent weeks but managed to log 10 minutes off the bench in Round One. His presence on Thursday would give the Loons a different level of playoff experience.
Adaptability: Minnesota suffered a rash of injuries over the course of a disjointed and condensed MLS campaign and still managed to finish fourth in the Western Conference with a 9-5-7 record and reach the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament this summer. Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, goalkeeper Tyler Miller and striker Luis Amarilla have missed most of the campaign, while Alonso, center back Michael Boxall, defender Hassani Dotson have also missed time. To the credit of head coach Adrian Heath, the Loons have adapted on the fly and been remarkably tough to beat throughout the year.
Performance at Children's Mercy Park: Since joining MLS in 2017, Minnesota have visited Children's Mercy Park six times in all competitions. Their record? Zero wins, zero ties and six losses with one goal scored and 15 conceded. That's right, Sporting are a perfect 6-0-0 at home against the Loons with five shutouts and a 15-1 edge in goal scoring.
Infrequent flyers: Over the last 10 weeks, the Loons have played away from home only twice—a scoreless draw at Nashville SC on Oct. 6 and a last-minute 1-0 win at bottom-dwellers FC Cincinnati on Oct. 24. Minnesota has enjoyed the luxury of playing seven of their last nine in the friendly confines of Allianz Field. Needless to say, they won't have that luxury on Thursday at Children's Mercy Park.
Goals from strikers: An injury to Amarilla and inconsistent goalscoring from other forwards prompted Minnesota to trade for former Sporting striker and MLS journeyman Kei Kamara in September. The 36-year-old has been a regular fixture during the Loons' long unbeaten streak but has yet to score from the run of play in a Minnesota uniform.
Five Players to Watch
M/F Kevin Molino: The 30-year-old Trinidadian has a team-best 11 goals to go with five assists in 20 appearances across all competitions this year. Molino has scored twice in each of this last two appearances, including last week's 3-0 playoff win over Colorado.
M/F Robin Lod: The Finnish international has recorded 10 goals and six assists in 24 competitive matches this season. Lod needed time to settle in during his debut MLS campaign, but he has been nothing short of excellent in 2020.
M Emanuel Reynoso: The Loons have lost just once in the 10 games Reynoso has started since he joined the side from Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors on Sept. 1. He has a team-best 10 assists despite being absent for half the season and assisted all three of Minnesota's goals in their playoff victory against Colorado.
M Jan Gregus: The 29-year-old Slovakian has been influential in Minnesota's turnaround from whipping post in 2017 and 2018 to legitimate contender in 2019 and 2020. Gregus has helped the Loons become tougher to break down defensively while also contributing 19 assists in 50 MLS starts (including playoffs) over the last two seasons.
GK Dayne St. Clair: Minnesota had concerns after goalkeeper Tyler Miller was lost for the season through injury, but St. Clair has probably been an upgrade. In 14 MLS appearances including playoffs, the 23-year-old Canadian has collected seven clean sheets and posted a 7-2-5 record with a 0.86 goals against average.
It should be noted, however, that St. Clair has yet to take part in a penalty shootout during his young professional career. That contrasts starkly with Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia, who has won all six shootouts at the professional club level.
The Head Coach
Fourth-year Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath guided the Loons through two tough years as the club adjusted to life in Major League Soccer from 2017-2018. After weathering that storm, the Englishman has effectively elevated Minnesota into title contention with a talented squad capable of beating anybody on any given day.
Heath guided the Loons to their playoff debut in 2019 and last week led them to their first playoff win. Children's Mercy Park has been his house of horrors, although he does own one previous victory at the stadium: a 1-0 result in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup as the head coach of then-USL side Orlando City.