Minnesota United’s rollercoaster season (10-13-11) came to a close on MLS Decision Day with a defining 3-1 defeat against Sporting Kansas City (12-14-8).
Captain Johnny Russell and midfielder Rémi Walter of Sporting KC scored within three minutes of each other in the first half, on a night when both teams were desperate for a win and some assistance from other teams to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Russell added another goal in the 78th minute, while veteran defender Michael Boxall scored the Loons’ only goal with a free-kick header in the 82nd minute.
“We are extremely disappointed,” expressed Loons interim coach Sean McAuley. “All the players share this disappointment, and my heart goes out to them.
“After the high of our previous game, we entered this one hoping for an upset since we had never won here in the regular season. We believed we had a good chance.”
This marks Kansas City’s 11th playoff appearance in 13 seasons. They made history by becoming the first team in MLS to start the season winless in the first 10 games (0-7-3) and still qualify for the playoffs.
For the Loons, this loss prevents them from reaching the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. Their last miss was in 2018, their second MLS season.
Minnesota United’s seventh MLS season commenced in early January without star midfielder Emanuel Reynoso, who joined the team in May and played his first game in early June due to family matters involving his 4-year-old daughter.
The season concluded with the firing of Adrian Heath, who had been the franchise’s only head coach since its inception. The dismissal took place with two regular-season games remaining and the team’s playoff chances in serious jeopardy.
Heath had led the team through a seven-game winless streak that concluded with a lackluster 5-1 loss against Los Angeles F.C. Consequently, Heath and technical director Mark Watson were let go. McAuley took charge and guided the team to a 5-2 home victory over LA Galaxy two weeks ago, setting up the must-win match against Kansas City.
Sporting KC had listed star players Alan Pulido and Russell as questionable due to foot and groin injuries respectively. However, both players started the game, and Russell once again proved his prowess against the Loons.
Scottish winger Russell opened the scoring in the 28th minute, followed by French defensive midfielder Walter three minutes later. These goals were enough for Sporting KC. The Loons now needed to score a minimum of three goals to secure a victory.
Russell, with five goals and ten assists against the Loons, extended his tally with a left-footed shot inside the 18-yard box for a 1-0 lead. Walter then capitalized on a run down the middle of the 18-yard box, converting Daniel Salloi’s pass from a run down the left wing.
Salloi played a part in both goals, while Russell completed the scoring by blocking defender Michael Boxall’s clearance near the goal line and redirecting it past Loons keeper Dayne St. Clair.
The Loons had only managed to win at Children’s Mercy Park once since joining MLS in 2019, which was a 3-0 victory in the 2020 playoffs. With this loss, they have now suffered nine defeats in ten visits.
Both Minnesota and Kansas City knew they had to win, as well as hope that one of three teams ahead of them — Portland in 7th place, Dallas in 8th place, and San Jose in 9th place — would lose or draw. Ultimately, the Loons and Portland were the only teams remaining below the playoff line after Portland’s loss to Houston.
This was McAuley’s second game in charge since taking over from Heath. He made one significant change to the lineup, replacing young Bongokuhle Hlongwane with experienced Franco Fragapane, while adopting an unconventional 4-3-2-1 formation.
Fragapane and Reynoso played just behind striker Teemu Pukki, who scored four goals two weeks ago in McAuley’s debut. Bongokuhle, one of the six Loons players returning from international duty, entered the game in the 67th minute during a second half filled with fouls. McAuley opted to start veteran defenders Bakaye Dibassy and Zarek Valentin on the outside-back positions.
The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews, and other sources.
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