When Minnesota United arrived in MLS last year, it found a familiar foe waiting for it in Sporting Kansas City.
The Loons and Sporting KC matched up four times in Minnesota’s inaugural season and they will come together for at least three more before 2018 wraps up. But their history extends further than that. The two sides squared off in three-straight seasons prior to MNUFC’s MLS debut — twice in the U.S. Open Cup and once in preseason — and that familiarity has fostered a blossoming regional rivalry that resumes at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
“With them being so close, geographically, it is a little extra,” forward Christian Ramirez said. “We’ve played them so many times, whether it be preseason or in the U.S. Open Cup, so we know them pretty well and they know us.”
Ramirez has played in five of the Loons’ six matches against SKC since 2014 and has scored twice. He provided the dagger in last May’s 2-0 home win and converted a penalty kick in the 2016 Open Cup match that pushed a plucky NASL MNUFC side into extra time against its MLS rival.
SKC forward Diego Rubio’s 109th minute winner sunk Minnesota in that 2016 match, though, and Ramirez is just 1-4-1 against Sporting KC in his career. He said those battles have created a chip on the team’s shoulder that is motivating the Loons heading into Sunday’s contest.
“That is a nice little rivalry to have with them and continue to build off that,” Ramirez said. “It is a good thing to get going. As long as we can control it, that edge is something good to play for. We have to continue to prove people wrong and stay together. That is something we need to pride ourselves on.”
SPORTING KC SETTING THE STANDARD FOR MNUFC
In the build-up to Sunday’s match, MNUFC Head Coach Adrian Heath expressed great respect for his SKC counterpart Peter Vermes and what he has been able to build both on and off the field — saying that Sporting KC has built a framework that clubs like MNUFC should strive to replicate.
Heath said Kansas City has built a structure that grants them year-to-year continuity, which he credits for their sustained success and hopes to duplicate with the Loons.
“They’re a model for a club of our size to follow,” Heath said. “They don’t worry about what LA is doing or what is going on in New York. They just follow their own model. They have their own plan, they stick to it and they’re very good at it.”
Heath pointed to SKC’s ability to pick people up and immediately plug them into the lineup as a credit to the system they have created. This year, it’s been forward Johnny Russell, who has seamlessly slotted in on the right side after coming over from England and is tied for the team lead with five goals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: DEFENDING AS A UNIT
With 23 goals in 11 matches, Sporting KC boasts arguably the most potent attack in the Western Conference, making it imperative for MNUFC to commit itself to team defense on Sunday.
The Loons have showed off an ever-improving attack in recent matches, but that attacking prowess has often come along with neglected defensive responsibilities. Defender Eric Miller noted that the Loons are making “critical” errors at the back that are costing them goals and making things too easy for opponents.
Miller said an adept back four should be able to defend against six, seven or eight attackers if it stays tight and is locked in, but ideally teams should have 11 players defending, relegating the back four to the last line of defense needed only when called upon.
“We need to make teams earn things a little bit more,” Miller said. “With how good we are going forward we leave things a little bit exposed at the back. We have to make sure our shape behind the ball is good so that if teams are scoring on us, they’re earning it and are scoring great goals and we’re not digging holes for ourselves to get out of.”
Minnesota is still honing that balance between going forward and getting back and its development in that area will be key to finding a result in the face of Sporting KC’s high-flying attack.