For the past five weeks, Minnesota United had dealt with multiple injuries to attacking players and the resulting struggle to score goals. But even as the Loons were shut out three times in five games, their defense kept things together, never allowing more than a single goal.
Against Sporting Kansas City, that streak of defensive excellence came to a sudden, ugly halt.
SKC scored three times in a mistake-filled first half for the Loons defense, and it turned into a 4-0 Minnesota loss at Children's Mercy Park on Wednesday night.
The Loons (8-8-7) fell from sixth place to eighth in MLS' Western Conference, overtaken by Los Angeles FC and Real Salt Lake, both of which won Wednesday. The top seven teams make the playoffs. Sporting KC (13-5-7) climbed above Seattle and into first place.
That the Loons were shut out, yet again, and managed exactly zero shots on goal was almost an afterthought.
"It was a comedy of errors at the back," said manager Adrian Heath, who agreed that the game was his team's low point of the season. "I don't think we could have made any more wrong choices than we did in the first half."
For the first five minutes, it looked like everything was going Minnesota's way. First, with 3:30 on the clock, Ethan Finlay's 20-yard shot cannoned off the crossbar. Then, 45 seconds later, Adrien Hunou's attempted header trickled just wide of the far post. Then 30 seconds after that, Hunou dragged another attempt from inside the penalty area wide of the other post.
But after the initial pressure, it was Sporting KC that took the lead in the 14th minute. Minnesota goalkeeper Tyler Miller parried a long shot from Daniel Salloi directly into the path of forward Khiry Shelton, who nodded home a head-high bounce to give KC the 1-0 lead.
It was a harbinger. With a half-hour gone, Jacori Hayes slipped in midfield after he had a chance to start a counterattack, gifting Sporting another chance that ended with Shelton drilling a shot off the post.
A few minutes later, Sporting added a second goal. A long cross evaded a penalty area full of MNUFC defenders and fell to Salloi, SKC's leading scorer, who buried his 13th goal of the season to double the home side's lead.
Then just before halftime, Miller was front and center again, in the worst possible way. His attempt to slide in to poke the ball away from Shelton in the far corner of the penalty area was needless and late, and a video review awarded a penalty kick for SKC. Johnny Russell was on target from the spot, giving Sporting a 3-0 lead at the half.
Said Heath, of Miller, "I don't think tonight was one of his great games, and he'll be the first to hold his hand up to that. Obviously, the penalty somewhat killed the game off as a contest."
Seven minutes into the second half, Sporting made it 4-0, with Russell earning his second assist of the night, crossing from the right for midfielder Cam Duke to redirect into the Loons net.
The only silver linings for MNUFC were the presence of leading scorer Robin Lod, who saw the field for the first time since Aug. 7 as a substitute, and a first MLS appearance for 20-year-old Honduran midfielder Joseph Rosales.
Once again, the Minnesota lineup was defined more by who was missing than who was present. Eight Loons were unavailable, with six players injured and two suspended due to yellow cards in previous games.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.