Minnesota United knows better than most MLS teams why Sporting Kansas City’s home field is called “Blue Hell.”
The Loons are winless during their first four seasons in the league at Children’s Mercy Park.
Coach Adrian Heath uses words such as “awful” and “hopeless” to describe his team’s previous visits to Kansas City. With that looming over them, the Loons will play the most important match in team history, a Western Conference semifinal, there Thursday night.
But Heath promises there’s a difference this time about a team that extended its club-record nine-game unbeaten streak with a 3-0 home victory over Colorado in a first-round playoff game.
“We will be better than we’ve been certainly in the last couple years,” Heath said. “This group will be better. I’m almost certain of that.”
The Loons are 0-5 in Kansas City since they entered MLS in 2017. They have been outscored 10-1 in a stadium that received its nickname because of its fervent supporters, a noisy atmosphere and a 2013 MLS Cup-winning club that made the playoffs eight consecutive years in Children’s Mercy Park until last season.
“They’re good, they’re good at home,” Heath said. “Obviously, when that stadium is full, they do create a really good atmosphere. It’s a really intimate little stadium, one of the better atmospheres within the league. But it’s generally fueled by the performance on the field. They’re excellent at home.”
This time, the Loons arrive on a same-day chartered flight to play the Western Conference’s top-seeded team. Sporting KC went 12-6-3 — including 5-3-1 at home — in a regular season in which it defeated Minnesota United 1-0 both home and away and had a Nov. 1 game canceled because of positive COVID-19 testing.
Sporting Kansas City allows 18% of Children’s Mercy Park capacity for home games during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 3,300 fans expected for Thursday’s game.
“There’s not going to be that ‘Blue Hell’ where they’ll be on top of us during the game,” Loons veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “It’s unfortunate the times we’re in. That makes for a great atmosphere, especially come playoffs.”
Heath calls such a limited number a “good, little buzz in the stadium” because of supporters’ drumming and music in the air.
“We don’t need any atmosphere to get revved up for this,” Heath said. “We know what’s at stake for the club, probably the biggest game we ever had and an opportunity to get us to the Western Conference final, which would be great.”
Stars step in
Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes knows well his team’s record and seeding when he called it the underdog. He also knows well his team’s home history against the Loons.
He says he pays it no heed.
“I’m not one to look at things like that because every team and every game is different, even within a season,” Vermes said in a video call with reporters. “Teams change. The day of the game is always different.”
SKC’s star striker Alan Pulido — a club-record transfer acquisition from Mexico’s top league last winter — didn’t play in a Sept. 13 home victory 1-0 over Minnesota United. The Loons’ own player on a record transfer fee, attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso, was a second-half substitute in that game when half the team’s starting 11 were reserve players.
Both players are expected to be available for Thursday’s game, which was moved from Wednesday to fill a hole in Fox’s nationwide schedule after Thursday night football’s Dallas-Baltimore game was postponed. The winner gets only three full days to prepare for Monday’s Western Conference final against Seattle.
Pulido was out injured for a first-round playoff victory in penalty kicks over San Jose.
“You don’t replace him,” Vermes said. “He’s a special player within our team.”
Reynoso has transformed the Loons’ attack with his presence, his vision and his playmaking, to the tune of seven assists in his past four games alongside Finlay, Kevin Molino and Robin Lod.
“Wow, what a player, huh?” Sporting KC veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “The first game was hard to see really what he was bringing to the table. But now he’s an unbelievable player. The South American/Argentine guys who come into the league, we know they’re very shifty, very good players. They see the game a whole different way than everybody else. They find little spots on the field. They play with instinct that serves them well.”
The Loons acquired Reynoso, starting center-back Bakaye Dibassy and MLS fifth-leading all-time scorer Kei Kamara during the summer transfer window. They are acquisitions that — despite season-ending injuries to Ike Opara, Luis Amarilla and Tyler Miller — have Heath confident this time in Kansas City will be different.
His team is 2-1-2 at home against SKC and scored twice in stoppage time to win 2-1 at the MLS is Back tournament in July.
“The only thing we have to do is play an awful lot better than we have done,” Heath said. “We’ve started bad there, played on the back foot, not been positive enough. … We have been at best awful and hopeless at times, and we have to address that.
“We have to play better, with a different mind-set. We’ve proven we can beat this team.”