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Sporting Kansas City's highly anticipated resumption of the regular season arrives Sunday when Manager Peter Vermes' side faces Minnesota United FC in the Group D curtain raiser of the MLS is Back Tournament at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Kickoff at the ESPN Wide World of Sports is slated for 7 p.m. CT with live coverage on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, the ESPN app, Sports Radio 810 WHB, La Grande 1340 AM and SiriusXM FC. Additionally, Sporting KC Live presented by Michelob Ultra will provide 60 minutes of pregame coverage on FOX Sports Kansas City beginning at 6 p.m. CT.
Sunday's long-awaited clash between Midwestern rivals just so happens to feature the top two teams in the early Supporters' Shield standings, as Sporting and Minnesota both earned consecutive multi-goal victories to open the 2020 campaign. Four months have passed since then, however, and continued momentum—not to mention pole position in Group D—is up for grabs. As Sporting prepares for its first battle in this historic and unprecedented competition, here are five things to know ahead of Sunday's match.
1. It's Been a While
A long offseason, followed shortly thereafter by a four-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, means Sporting Kansas City will have played just two competitive matches during a 279-day stretch from Oct. 7, 2019 and July 11, 2020. By the time Vermes' men take the field on Sunday, 126 days will have elapsed since Sporting put the Houston Dynamo to the sword with a 4-0 win at Children's Mercy Park on March 7. Minnesota has gone just as long without a competitive game, which will make Sunday all the more savory for both teams.
2. Hot Starters
Indeed, no one enjoyed better starts to their seasons than Sporting and Minnesota. After seeing their eight-year playoff streak end in 2019, Sporting opened 2020 with a vengeance, ousting Vancouver Whitecaps FC 3-1 on the road before sinking Houston at home. The team has opened an MLS season with consecutive wins by multiple goals for the first time ever and scored three or more goals in each of their first two league matches for the second time ever. Two high-profile newcomers have led the way, with Mexican striker Alan Pulido notching two goals and an assist and Israeli midfielder Gadi Kinda scoring twice.
Led by head coach Adrian Heath, Minnesota leads MLS with eight goals through Week 2, having beaten Portland 3-1 and San Jose 5-2. In doing so, the Loons also registered back-to-back road wins, marking just the second such occasion in club history. Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla and MLS veteran Kevin Molino have two goals apiece, while midfielder Jan Gregus and Ethan Finlay tallied two assists each.
3. Star Forwards
Sporting and Minnesota splashed big on center forwards ahead of the 2020 campaign. Pulido wasted no time endearing himself to the Kansas City faithful, scoring two excellent goals to start the year while also demonstrating his tireless motor. He leads MLS forwards in high presses, essentially serving as Sporting's first line of defense in Vermes' 4-3-3 system.
On the Minnesota sideline, Amarilla audaciously declared in February he would score 25 goals during his debut campaign with the Loons. It's still quite early, but his hot start suggests he wasn't crazy in making that prediction. The South American found the back of the net in both of Minnesota's victories and could be the spark that lifts the Loons to greater heights in the coming months.
4. Ike is Out
No player contributed more to Minnesota's defensive improvement last season than center back Ike Opara, who previously won MLS Defender of the Year honors with Sporting in 2017 before replicating the feat last year in his first campaign with the Loons. In 2018, Minnesota finished 13 points shy of a playoff berth and conceded 71 goals, the most in the Western Conference. Upon Opara's arrival in 2019, the Loons earned their first playoff appearance by finishing fourth and allowed just 43 goals, 28 fewer than the previous season and the third-fewest in the West.
The bad news for Minnesota? Opara will miss the MLS is Back Tournament group stage with a medical issue. His absence will put the impetus on fellow center back Michael Boxall and talented full backs Chase Gasper and Romain Metanire to anchor the Loons' defense.
5. Uncharted Waters
Not surprisingly, Sunday's contest puts both teams in unfamiliar territory. Neither side has played a competitive match without fans. Minnesota has never played a competitive neutral-site fixture and has visited the state of Florida just once, defeating Orlando City SC by a 1-0 scoreline in March 2018. Sporting, meanwhile, has played just two true neutral-site matches: MLS Cup 2000 (a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire) and MLS Cup 2004 (a 3-2 loss to D.C. United).
Despite these rarities, it's important to remember that all group stage matches during the MLS is Back Tournament will count toward the 2020 regular season standings. Consequently, Sunday's winner is likely to take first place in the Supporters' Shield standings.