On a night that marked the return of defender Ike Opara to Kansas City and the debut of not one but two new Loons in Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat and Thomas Chacon, Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City fought hammer and tongs for nearly 90 minutes to find a winner. With emotions running high for both sides, it was SKC who would nose in front in the 88th minute to take all three points from a game that found the visitors on a more even footing with the hosts than ever before in MLS.
"Disappointed," said Head Coach Adrian Heath of his immediate feelings following the game. "[We] put a lot of effort in, created some good opportunities, thought we were dangerous on the break. When it’s so late, it’s a bit of a killer but I was pleased with some aspects of our game but we’ve got to do better in the final third. We created one or two really good opportunities. I thought the game was very even. We looked dangerous on the counter attack [for] most of the evening. Certainly [in the] first half, we had two or three really good opportunities and didn’t pick the final ball."
Minnesota United began the night in the team’s familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, albeit with Robin Lod playing the role of free-roaming playmaker and Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat out wide on the left wing. Each brought a little something different to their roles, with Lod often looking to control the ball through the middle of the park like a fulcrum and Moimbe-Tahrat willing to harass Sporting Kansas City defenders when they were in possession deep in their own half.
"He’s played fullback or wing back most of his career so he’s used to that," said Heath of Moimbe-Tahrat. "I thought considering he hasn’t played for a long time, I thought that he did well in the first half, got forward, combined well with his teammates, put some good crosses in the box. He’ll be better for having the hour or so that he’s had as well."
The opening minutes saw the home side dominating the ball and consistently working the ball through the middle third and then out into the wings. For their part, the Loons did well to stand up to these crosses, either stopping them before they were launched or else deflecting them without sending them over the byline — SKC would not get its first corner kick until the 30th minute.
In the ninth minute, Lod took a long pass from midfielder Ethan Finlay near the edge of the box in the middle of the field and ripped a shot that Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia couldn’t cleanly handle. While Melia managed to dive on the ball before forward Mason Toye could get to the ball, Melia struggles with on-target shots that came his way throughout the first half.
Johnny Russell was a consistent threat for the home side in the first half, first getting the ball into the box with a head of steam after beating defender Chase Gasper off the dribble in the 13th minute before going down on his own. Minutes later though, Russell would get another opportunity when Vito Mannone came out aggressively to clear a ball but ended up sending it back to the SKC attacker. Russell settled it and struck the ball again, sending it directly into Mannone’s waiting arms, though. Kansas City would continue to send probing shots in from the edge of the box, but none of them looked particularly threatening early.
In the 33rd minute, Minnesota got another golden opportunity when midfielder Hassani Dotson — in for the injured Osvaldo Alonso — recovered a ball just beyond the box and launched a shot that Melia again couldn’t handle. This time, as the ball bounced wide, Toye got a foot on it and fired it back on net. This time, Melia was up to the task and secured the ball.
Sporting Kansas City began to formulate some clearer attacking ideas as the half wore on, but found themselves stymied time and again, often by the efforts of Ike Opara. Opara assumed the captaincy in his first return to Children’s Mercy Park since leaving SKC for MNUFC this past offseason and he was consistently aggressive in locking down the box for the Loons, much to the chagrin of his former employers.
"It’s always an added incentive when you come back to your old club especially a club that he’s sort of, synonymous with, and a club that he’s given so much to," said Heath. "You saw the reception he had from the fans and I thought that was fitting that he got that tad bit of a reception because of the work that he’s done. He’s put a lot of time in here, played a lot of big games for them. But no, Ike [Opara’s] been terrific for us."
In the 37th minute, defender Graham Zusi got loose on the right wing and got deep enough into the box to loose a hard shot that forced Mannone into a leaping save that sent the ball over the crossbar and out for a corner kick. On the other end, Minnesota’s clearest opportunity came in the 42nd minute when an in-swinging corner from Jan Gregus picked out Opara in the box. Opara nodded the ball toward the goal but just wide of the right post. The first half would end with Kansas City getting more shots (12 to seven) but with Minnesota getting more shots on target (4 to 3).
In the second half, the field opened up a bit for both teams, resulting in more clear cut opportunities but also more collisions and jawing. In the 48th minute, Russell found himself with a generous amount of space in front of him on the right side of the box and fired a curling shot that just grazed the top of the crossbar as it sailed high of the far post. For Minnesota’s part, the team continued to find success penetrating up the wings and also began to pick out more ambitious early diagonal passes, although they generally had more success down the left side than the right, where Romain Metanire found himself frequently stymied and forced to give the ball back toward Gregus in the middle.
In the 59th minute, SKC’s Erik Hurtado began to assert himself on the right side of the middle, carving out space in the box and firing a close range shot that Mannone pushed out of bounds for a corner kick. That would lead to a cavalcade of corners for the home side and one could sense Sporting Kansas City knocking on the door.
Perhaps in response, Heath went to his bench beginning in the 66th minute, bringing in the newly-signed Thomas Chacon for the almost-as-newly-signed Moimbe–Tahrat on the left wing. The 19-year-old made an immediate impression, nutmegging Zusi on the wing. In all the teenager’s debut had him showing off some flair and attacking brio, but also working off some understandable first game jitters.
"It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for the kid, hardly knows anybody’s names," said Heath. "It’s one of them that we wanted to get him some action. He’s 19 years of age and he’s signed for five years so we’ve got a lot more to see of him."
In the 69th minute, Darwin Quintero came in for Robin Lod, and changes followed swiftly for Sporting Kansas City with Benny Feilhaber making way for Ilie Sanchez and Daniel Salloi leaving for Gerso Fernandes. With each side energized, the teams went back at it, each hoping to chip away at the resolve of the other in a game that felt even for the bulk of play.
But as the game entered its final 15 minutes, the momentum began to shift ever so slightly in favor of the home team. MNUFC was forced into more and more last-ditch defending in front of net — a task they were game for time and again. But ultimately, it would take only the slimmest of opening for SKC to break the game open. In the 88th minute, Johnny Russell found a seam in the left side of the defense and slipped inside, tapping a pass ahead to Hurtado, who lured Mannone out of the face of goal enough to get a wide open look that he buried to put his team on top 1-0.
With just three minutes of stoppage time, Minnesota was reduced to pinging the ball forward and hoping for a tired defender’s legs to fail him. But Sporting Kansas City were up to the task and when the final whistle blew, would leave with all three points.
"Just how difficult it is emotionally and then being on the other side of the locker room," said Opara when asked if anything surprised him in his return. "Coming in here and trying to get a result is never easy. The perspective of being an away team here was an awakening a bit. At the end of the day, I thought that we did what we could to possibly get a result but just wasn’t our way at the end."
Minnesota United’s next game is on Tuesday, August 27 in the U.S. Open Cup Final against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. CT with pregame coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2, streaming on the ESPN App and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Chase Gasper; M Jan Gregus, Hassani Dotson, Ethan Finlay, Robin Lod (Darwin Quintero 69’), Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat (Thomás Chacón 66’); F Mason Toye (Abu Danladi 80’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; D Brent Kallman; M Lawrence Olum, Miguel Ibarra
Sporting Kansas City Starting XI: GK Tim Melia; D Graham Smith, Graham Zusi, Luis Martins, Matt Besler; M Benny Feilhaber (Ille Sanchez 71’), Daniel Salloi (Gerso Fernandes 74’), Felipe Gutierrez, Johnny Russell, Roger Espinoza (Jimmy Medranda 84’); F Erik Hurtade
SKC Unused Subs: GK Eric Dick; D Booted Barath, Seth Sinovic; F Krisztian Nemeth
88’- Hurtado (Russell, Sanchez) – SKC
74’ – Dotson (YC) – MIN
81’ – Zusi (YC) – SKC