They left it till nearly the last minute, but the Loons defeated the visiting Sporting Kansas City 2-1 and clinched the club’s first-ever playoff berth. Sporting KC came to Allianz Field with a similar game plan as many of those who have threatened to take points from the Loons – defend in a deep block and hit on the counterattack with pace. The strategy almost paid off for the visitors as a first half goal from Botond Baráth inside of six minutes stood until the 71st minute when Osvaldo Alonso finally broke through the SKC resistance. Heading into the 90th minute, both sides threatened with multiple chances to win the game but it was Hassani Dotson who came to the rescue for Minnesota United. A deflected shot bounced past the outstretched hands of Tim Melia to give the Loons a very late victory that clinched their first-ever playoff berth.
“They've worked really hard for what they've achieved,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “But we want to go even further than that. We don't want to just get in the playoffs. I didn't read one publication that tipped us to be in the playoffs this year in the Western Conference. It's not been a pretty evening in terms of football, but in terms of a will to find a way to win a game, I couldn't fault the players, certainly in the second half, I thought our will and our desire was magnificent.”
Going with an unchanged starting XI from Sunday’s 0-0 goalless draw against the Portland Timbers, Adrian Heath’s side came out of the blocks on the back foot. Pinned down by the early pressure of Sporting Kansas City, the Loons defended deep in their own half throughout the opening five minutes of the game.
Sporting KC capitalized on its early pressure as a Botond Baráth goal in the sixth minute gave the visitors a 1-0 lead over the Loons. After winning a corner kick, SKC’s Johnny Russell found a trailing Graham Zusi who laid the ball back to Russell on his stronger left foot. With a better angle to cross, Russell swung a dangerous ball that was easily touched home by Baráth – SKC’s centerback – who had remained in the Minnesota penalty area after the initial corner kick.
“I just don't think our play was good, I don't think it was crisp enough,” said Heath when asked about his side’s slow start. “I don't think we moved the ball quick enough. All the things that when we've been good at home, that's what we've had. Quality wasn't as good as it's normally been.”
The Loons were quick to respond to their disappointing start, though, as they won a flurry of corner kicks which in turn began to push Sporting KC back on its heels. MNUFC had a glorious opportunity to level the score in the 12th minute when Kevin Molino’s early cross found a cutting Mason Toye directly on the doorstep of SKC’s goal. Leaning back at the crucial moment, Toye sent his effort well over Tim Melia’s net, leaving the young forward disappointed not to score.
Unfazed by Minnesota pushing to equalize immediately, Sporting KC had two golden opportunities to jump out to a 2-0 lead in the 23rd and 26th minute.
First, Erik Hurtado – whose pace looked to be a threat early on – made a darting run across the face of goal that eluded both Ike Opara and Michael Boxall. Opening his body too much, Hurtado flashed his shot narrowly wide across the face of goal. Three minutes later, Vito Mannone then came up with an outrageous double save to keep MNUFC in the game when he parried a long-range effort from Graham Zusi and then incredibly used a strong right arm to stifle the follow-up shot from Gianluca Busio to keep the score at 1-0.
In the remaining 20 minutes of the half, Sporting KC began to sit deeper in their own half as they aimed to frustrate Minnesota and protect their 1-0 lead. As tackles began to fly in, the game became choppy with frequent stoppages for fouls and delays for players protesting their innocence. Determined to push aside the frustration sustained throughout the latter stages of the first half, the Loons came close to equalizing once again – this time through Darwin Quintero.
In first half stoppage time, a deflected Romain Metanire cross looped over the head of SKC’s Botond Baráth who had misjudged the flight of the ball. An unmarked Darwin Quintero loitered behind Baráth and attempted to steer a close-range header past Tim Melia. As the cross lost much of its speed through the deflection, Quintero was unable to get enough purchase on his header and it fell directly into the hands of Melia to hold Sporting’s 1-0 lead heading into the half.
Looking dangerous on the break again, Sporting KC had another chance that came inches from doubling their lead right out of the break. Pushing forward out of his spot in midfield, Gianluca Busio latched onto a trailing ball on top of the MNUFC penalty area. Taking the ball first time and expertly slicing his shot, Busio’s effort agonizingly dinked off the Minnesota crossbar and was cleared to safety.
Looking to bring some energy and fresh legs into an XI who had put in a shift against the Portland Timbers just three days earlier, Heath brought on Hassani Dotson and Abu Danladi in place of Kevin Molino and Mason Toye. Danladi and Dotson both clearly began to make their mark on the game as the duo helped to retain the ball and push SKC even deeper into their own penalty area. By the 70th minute, the visitors were defending with 10 men behind the ball with Erik Hurtado the only outlet going forward.
“We had to change the shape,” said Heath. “I was going to do it at halftime, but I wanted to see if we could get a little of impetus going, actually get a foothold in the game. The more I watched it, the more they had that spare body in midfield and they were using it well so we went to a 4-3-3 and matched them up in the middle of the park and I thought that helped us enormously.”
Finally making their attacking pressure count, the Loons got on the scoresheet in the 71st minute through Osvaldo Alonso – who hadn’t scored since the inaugural game at Allianz Field. Whipping in his seventh corner kick of the night, Jan Gregus found the head of Abu Danladi, who sent a deftly flicked header into the path of Alonso. Making no mistake, Alonso buried it in the SKC net from close-range to equalize for the Loons.
Sporting nearly took the lead back moments after Minnesota’s goal when second half substitute Gerso Fernandes raced into the MNUFC penalty area. Cutting around the onrushing Vito Mannone, Fernandes attempted to lay the ball off but a last-ditch tackle from Romain Metanire sent the ball out of play and to safety.
While Sporting KC continued to threaten on the counterattack, Vito Mannone stood up to each Sporting effort, denying chance after chance to keep the scores level. Although the visitors created chances on the break, whenever MNUFC took control of the ball, it pinned SKC in their own penalty area with almost every man behind the ball. The last 10 minutes were a fight to the finish as both sides looked to find a break in the game to take all three points.
In the 90th minute, with the game on the line, that break came for Hassani Dotson who scored his fourth goal of the season – this one not a banger but the most important of the bunch. Cutting into the Sporting penalty area, Dotson feinted and skipped past the flying challenges of multiple defenders and onto his weaker left foot. With an open look 12 yards from goal, Dotson sent a scuffed shot that deflected off an SKC defender and past the outstretched arms of Tim Melia sending Allianz Field into delirium. Not only did Dotson’s strike win the game for MNUFC but it dramatically clinched Minnesota’s first-ever playoff berth.
“It means everything to me,” said Heath. “I'm proud of what I've done as a player and what I've done as a coach, but this is the most important thing because it's the next thing. When I came in, after the first year, I still think getting 10 wins is probably as big an achievement as making the playoffs, for what we had to go through that year. I'm really, really proud of everybody connected with the club, especially the players, the ownership group, with our supporters, who have been nothing short of magnificent since we've been in this stadium. This is just the start.”
Minnesota United's next game is its final regular season bout at Allianz Field in 2019 as it hosts Los Angeles Football Club on Sunday, September 29. Kickoff for that game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX Sports 1, streaming on FOX Sports GO and live on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North. It’s Minnesota United’s Fan Appreciation Game, presented by Element Electronics, so come early for special events.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Chase Gasper; M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Kevin Molino (Hassani Dotson 61’), Robin Lod, Darwin Quintero; F Mason Toye (Abu Danladi 61’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; D Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat; M Lawrence Olum, Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay
Sporting Kansas City Starting XI: GK Tim Melia; D Botond Barath, Graham Zusi, Ille Sanchez, Luis Martins; M Daniel Salloi, Felipe Gutierrez, Gianluca Busio (Jimmy Medranda 89’), Johnny Russell (Gerso Fernandes 71’), Roger Espinoza; F Erik Hurtado (Krisztian Nemeth 71’)
SKC Unused Subs: GK Erick Dick; D Graham Smith, Seth Sinovic; Nicolas Hasler
7’ – Barath (Russell) – SKC
70’ – Alonso (Danladi, Gregus) – MIN
90’ – Dotson (Gregus) – MIN
79’ – Gasper (YC) – MIN
90+3’ – Gutierrez (YC) – SKC
90+4’ – Gasper (2YC) – MIN
90+6’ – Nemeth (YC) – SKC