Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City had wildly different starts to their playoff runs. The Loons’ first-ever playoff win was a smooth as silk 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids. SKC, on the other hand, went through a wild roller coaster ride against the San Jose Earthquakes that ended with Tim Melia stopping three shots in a shootout to help his team survive and advance.
Outside of that, there are plenty of similarities between Minnesota United and Sporting KC, which will meet in the Western Conference final on Thursday night (8:30 p.m., FOX). They both played 21 games in the regular season, and, although SKC notched 39 points to Minnesota’s 34, their attacking and defensive records are nearly the same. SKC scored 38 times and allowed 25 goals while the Looks scored 36 and only conceded 26.
SKC has a large variety of threats on the field. Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell, and Gadi Kinda all led the team with six goals on the year and Erik Hurtado and Khiry Shelton followed them up with five each.
SKC also has the edge in terms of experience. The Loons are only playing in their third ever playoff game and few of regulars have more postseason experience than that. Ethan Finlay and former SKC defender Ike Opara have plenty to draw on, as does Ozzie Alonso, but he has played all of ten minutes as a sub in the last month.
SKC on the other hand, missed the playoffs last year for the first time in eight seasons and many of their players have been with the team for a while. Tim Melia, Gerso Fernandes, Ilie Sanchez, and other role players have all been part of deep playoff runs before.
Minnesota United is more of a two-headed monster up front. Kevin Molino led the team with nine goals on the year and Robin Lod finished second with seven. No other player on the roster had more than four, and even that was only veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay.
Where the Loons can keep their opponents guessing is in which players are setting up their front two finishers. Emanuel Reynoso and Jan Gregus are the most likely helpers, but Lod and Molino are equally adept at setting up their teammates with quality scoring chances.
This one should be a solid matchup of two teams that excel at both scoring and preventing their opponents from finding the back of the net.
Here is a closer look at the second Western Conference semifinal:
Minnesota United won the first match between these two in the MLS is Back Tournament in July, but SKC picked up the victory in both games played during the resumed regular season.
Players to Watch
Pulido was the crown jewel of SKC’s winter transfer activity and he has been worth every penny. His nine goals lead the team in the regular season, and now that he appears set to return for the first time in a month after recovering from a knee injury, Pulido will be key to trying to break down the stingy Loons defense.
It’s been a big season for the Finnish midfielder. He scored seven times for the Loons while also picking up five assists after struggling to find his place in the team after arriving in the summer a year ago. Now he is one of the most important players for Minnesota United and it would be hard to see them winning if he struggles.
Matchup to Watch
GERSO FERNANDES VS. HASANI DOTSON
Gerso Fernandes has a tendency to pop up off the wing and score massive goals at dangerous times. Dotson will need to slow him down without neglecting his ability to create chances up front.
It’s easy to forget that Busio just turned 18 in May. He has been a regular starter for two seasons now and thought he scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time of his first ever playoff game last week. He has settled into a deep-lying midfield role and really taken to the new position, helping SKC establish more control of games.
Gregus is one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS and he will need to be that on Thursday. He can stop opposing attacks before they begin and then jump start his own team going forward. A big game from him could neutralize the dangerous SKC midfield and make life easier for Minnesota on both sides of the ball.
Odds are good this game is going to end up on the lower scoring side of the spectrum.
SKC will want to tighten up its defense after last week’s debacle against San Jose. Minnesota United’s attack is a lot more organized than the Quakes, thus the SKC back line will need to react accordingly. They are also dealing with a much better defense this time around. Minnesota’s excellent defensive record will mean Pulido, Gerso, Busio, and the rest of the SKC attack won’t have as much freedom to create chances.
The pressure will also be on the defense as far as Minnesota is concerned. SKC can score goals with more consistency compared to the Rapids and the Loons will need to be on their game to keep their opponent’s array of attacking midfielders at bay. Thankfully, Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy are more often than not up to the task.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see this game at 0-0 heading into extra time, and maybe even penalties, but both teams have the type of players that can show up and score a late goal to steal a result. Be prepared for 80 minutes or so of cagey action and hope that both teams open it up as fatigue sets in.