By Araceli Villanueva // @Aracelv1
Where: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS.
When: Thursday, August 22th, 8:30 p.m. CT.
How to watch: ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes, 810 WHB, ESPN Deportes KC 1480 AM
Every point matters. And Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United are not taking the match tomorrow likely.
For the better part of the last decade, Sporting KC has been the team to watch in the Western Conference. Minnesota United has struggled to get out of the bottom places for the first two years of their existence.
This year, the tables have turned for these two Midwestern teams. Sitting in second place with 42 points in a tight race, the Loons will be looking to secure their first-ever playoff qualification, in addition to hosting a playoff game at Allianz Field.
SKC’s turbulent season has been frustrating for both the players and fans. Still stuck in alternating positions below the line and with nine games left, SKC is desperate to keep their streak of eight straight postseason appearances alive.
Both teams will meet for the first time in league play this Thursday for the “friendliest rivalry” in MLS after the Loons eliminated Sporting KC from Round 4 of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup earlier this year.
The match will also serve as reunion when SKC favorite, Ike Opara returns to CMP. Despite wearing the wrong jersey – Opara continues to be a dominant defender and has been critical in guiding the Loons.
To help get a better insight on the Loons and their club history, I interviewed my colleague at MLSFemale and Minnesota United reporter, Bridget McDowell.
Araceli Villanueva: Minnesota United struggled for their first two years of existence. Now sitting in second place, how do you think they’ve been able to turn things around this season and can they keep up the momentum with playoffs just around the corner?
Bridget McDowell: Minnesota has finally started to build an identity and team chemistry. The new veterans (Ike Opara, Ozzie Alonso, Lawrence Olum) have added a new level of accountability (something which was building last season, but often dropped off with each poor result). Their guidance has led the squad away from the in-fighting seen often in ’17 and ’18 and towards a more positive approach.
Players may show frustration, but typically discuss what led to a mistake and help one another improve. I’ve seen quite a few post-match discussions in the locker room, with players huddled around phones watching a replay or getting a teammate’s perspective on an error. The rookies are also upping the standard and pushing the whole squad to work harder.
Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson bring fresh attitudes and their work ethic and adaptability seems to be pushing the others. These players have all been key pieces in the gutsy, gritty victories (and draws) that have landed Minnesota in 2nd.
AV: Thursday’s matchup has been dubbed the “Friendliest Rivalry” for this week. What is your take on the title?
BM: Minnesota Soccer Twitter got a kick out of [Sporting KC’s] tailgate video in which fans shared their views of United fans. “Oh yeah, those guys” and “they’ve got a nice place up there” is a taste of the neutral rivalry this has become. United has drawn Sporting as a USOC opponent since the NASL days so when that trend continued as Minnesota moved into the same league, the same conference, as Kansas City. It’s kind of a forced rivalry. I think it’s become a parody rivalry of sorts.
The first face-off I witnessed was the 2016 USOC match played in Blaine. I stood with the supporters who were screaming at the ref, banging on the boards and frustrated to tears with the result. Sporting’s first visit to TCF Stadium in 2017 served as the bitter rematch. Minnesota got revenge despite GK Bobby Shuttleworth having his nose broken by Dom Dwyer. By the time that USOC draw came around, United fans could only say, “Those guys again?” I’ve talked with many United fans considered SKC their MLS club before MNUFC made the jump. With similar histories, it’s a team and fan base we look up to and a match-up we circle on our calendars every year. If the league is going to call that a rivalry, we may as well have a little fun with it. But if MLS really wanted to invest in this ‘rivalry’, it would pitch in a little money to speed up the endless construction on I-35.
AV: Kevin Molino and Darwin Quintero are a few players that stood out from the last match against the Rapids. Do you think this duo could deliver similar results again on Thursday? Or which players should Sporting KC fans should be cautious of?
BM: They stood out against the Rapids, but not so much against Orlando when they played again at Allianz on Saturday. Molino and Quintero are definitely a strong attacking partnership.
New [young designated player] Thomas Chacon could shake that up on Thursday, though it is not clear how involved he will be. (MNUFC has said he will travel, but haven’t said in what capacity. He’s a likely sub though, with Angelo Rodriguez injured.)
SKC fans should know exactly who to be cautious of: Ike Opara. Many soccer writers and pundits have pointed out recently that SKC has yet to fill the gap left by Opara, leaving that defense uncharacteristically weak while Minnesota’s has been uncharacteristically strong. Opara is a clear leader in this squad so his return appearance will be motivation to win, maybe more so than the ‘rivalry’ atmosphere. Other players? Gasper, Jan Gregus and Ethan Finlay are all on every opponent’s radar each week; this one will be no different.
Bonus question: What is your score prediction?
2-1 Loons. Luck has played a distinct role in Minnesota’s recent successes. That, combined with a struggling SKC defense and an eager Opara, will drive United’s attack, but – true to the “Nicest Rivalry” moniker – it won’t be a complete blowout.
Featured image: Andy Witchger
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