Sporting KC looking to clinch playoff spot vs. much-improved Minnesota United FC

At the start of April, all three regular-season matches against Minnesota United FC figured to be a surefire three points for Sporting Kansas City.

The Loons had endured a treacherous start as Major League Soccer’s new kid on the block, hemorrhaging 18 goals during a winless four-game stretch in March.

Since then, however, head coach Adrian Heath’s side has made gradual yet drastic improvements across the board. Minnesota are is 5-4-1 since July 29, including wins in three of their last four matches.

Look no further than Tuesday — a thrilling 3-2 victory at high-flying Atlanta United FC — for proof of Minnesota’s recent ascendancy. That makes Saturday’s showdown at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (7 p.m. CT, FOX Sports KC, FOX Sports Midwest) all the more challenging for a Sporting KC outfit that can seal a playoff spot with a win.

“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia said. “I think from the first time we played them in Minnesota, despite (the fact that) they won, I think they’re more organized. They’re a team that has a little more of an identity in what they’re trying to do. Right now they’re playing with a lot of heart.”

The Loons defeated Sporting KC 2-0 in Minneapolis on May 7 before suffering a pair of lopsided losses the following month at Children’s Mercy Park— a 3-0 decision on June 3 and a 4-0 Open Cup setback on June 14.

Even so, Manager Peter Vermes’ men are perfectly aware of the danger Minnesota brings to the table. As playoff implications abound — Sporting KC is tied for second place in the West with Portland and Seattle but has two games in hand — all signs point to an ultra-competitive contest on Saturday.

“One thing that’s happened with (Minnesota) is that they have, over the course of the season, gotten to know each other a lot better and what their strengths are,” Vermes said. “I think they’re playing to those strengths a lot more than they were in the early part of the season, which is difficult — especially with an expansion team.

“We expect it to be an incredibly competitive match, especially because they’re playing at home. The last time we went there they beat us, and deservingly so. They were the better team.”

To complicate matters, Sporting KC will be without a slew of players who are away on international duty. Captain Matt Besler and veterans Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber have joined the U.S. MNT, while the absences of James Musa (New Zealand), Kevin Oliveira (Cape Verde) and Soony Saad (Lebanon) reduce the depth Vermes has at his disposal.

Minnesota faces a similar challenge, as regular starters Francisco Calvo (Costa Rica) and Kevin Molino (Trinidad & Tobago) join Michael Boxall (New Zealand), Johan Venegas (Costa Rica) and Jermaine Taylor (Jamaica) for national team commitments. Calvo has made 25 starts as the Loons’ defensive anchor this season, while Molino leads the team with nine assists to go with seven goals.

“Both teams have issues with call-ups, but we’re more than capable with the guys we have in this locker room,” Sporting KC defender Ike Opara said. “Everyone is hungry and wants a chance to have a role and produce."

Opara and Melia have played leading roles for Major League Soccer’s best defense throughout 2017. The side boasts a gaudy 0.80 goals against average and has conceded just 24 goals, 11 fewer than any other team. Both players figure to be finalists for MLS Defender of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year, respectively.

“It’s going to be a bit of a mixed bag with lineups, just with who’s gone (on international duty) and who’s injured,” Melia said. “We’ve just got to make sure we have a response from a disappointing (1-0 loss) against Vancouver last Saturday, go into this game and lock down the playoffs.”

Added Opara, “We need to make sure that we’re sticking to what we’ve done all season and relying on what we build our values on. We need to keep our identity. If we do that, we give ourselves the best chance of winning.”