"Five Things" is a season-long series presented by the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center that highlights the top storylines and players to watch ahead of each match. To visit the series archive, click here.
A blossoming rivalry between Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United FC will reach new levels of importance on Thursday night when the sides square off in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park.
The all-important showdown is slated for 7:31 p.m. CT with live coverage on FS1, FOX Deportes, the FOX Sports app, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM. Supporters can also access the Sporting KC app beginning at 7:45 p.m. CT for an exclusive pregame show in the lead-up to kickoff.
As two in-form sides look to take a step closer to MLS Cup glory, we examine five prevailing storylines surrounding the battle in the space below.
1. Win or Go Home
It’s as simple as that for top-seeded Sporting and No. 4 seed Minnesota. Thursday’s winner will progress to the Western Conference Final next Monday—facing either Seattle Sounders FC or FC Dallas—while the loser will suffer a season-ending fate after a long and winding 2020 campaign. Sporting are no strangers to the occasion, having reached the conference semifinals for the fifth time under Manager Peter Vermes, while the Loons are making their conference semifinal debut.
If Thursday’s contest is tied after 90 minutes, two 15-minute periods of extra time will be played in their entirety. If the sides remain deadlocked, a penalty shootout will decide the winner.
2. Catching Fire
As mentioned above, Sporting and Minnesota enter the conference semifinal clash firing on all cylinders. Vermes’ men finished the regular season 6-1-1 to collect their fourth first-place conference finish since 2011 before edging the San Jose Earthquakes on penalties in a Round One barnburner last weekend.
On the opposite sideline, Minnesota owns the longest active unbeaten streak in MLS. Head coach Adrian Heath’s side hasn’t lost since Sept. 23 and ended the regular season 4-0-4 prior to claiming the club’s first-ever playoff victory in a 3-0 dismantling of the Colorado Rapids last Sunday.
3. Familiar Foes
Sporting have met Minnesota 13 times in all competitions since the Loons joined MLS in 2017, posting a 7-4-2 record. Thursday will mark the fourth meeting of 2020 and the first playoff contest between the sides.
Minnesota landed the first blow in the 2020 series on July 12, erasing a late deficit to win 2-1 in the MLS is Back Tournament at Walt Disney world. Sporting exacted revenge with a 2-1 road victory at Allianz Field on Aug. 21 before posting a 1-0 home triumph on Sept. 13.
It should be noted that Sporting own a perfect 6-0-0 home record against the Loons in all competitions, scoring 15 goals and conceding only one. The last two meetings at Children’s Mercy Park—in August 2019 and September 2020—have been decided by late Sporting goals in 1-0 scorelines.
4. Game Changers
Both teams wield quality and depth in a specific area of the pitch. For Sporting, Vermes has arguably the most balanced attack in MLS at his disposal. Scottish winger Johnny Russell and Mexican striker Alan Pulido scored a team-best six goals apiece during the regular season, while versatile forward Khiry Shelton and striker Erik Hurtado added five each. That’s not to mention the contributions from six-goal midfielder Gadi Kinda, three-goal winger Gerso Fernandes or the impacts of midfielders Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez and Gianluca Busio—all three of whom scored in last Sunday’s defeat of San Jose.
Minnesota, meanwhile, boast a remarkably talented midfield with the likes of Kevin Molino and Robin Lod scoring goals aplenty, Ethan Finlay adding service from the wide channels, Emanuel Reynoso pulling the playmaking strings and Jan Gregus adding solidity as a deep-lying facilitator. Molino and Lod have combined for 21 goals in all competitions this season, including all three in their playoff win over Colorado, while Reynoso assisted on all three goals.
5. Real Keepers
Sporting and Minnesota will have utmost confidence in their keepers on Thursday. Tim Melia, of course, improved his career penalty shootout record to an incredible 6-0 last weekend, becoming the first keeper in MLS history to save all three penalties in a shootout. Melia’s penalty-saving exploits have reached legendary status, plain and simple.
On the opposite end of the pitch, Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has made an excellent impact since earning the starting job in early September. The 23-year-old Canadian has collected seven shutouts in 14 total appearances, going 7-2-5 with a 0.86 goals against average. In stark comparison to the 34-year-old Melia, St. Clair has yet to participate in a penalty shootout in his young professional career.