Obvious underdogs in the sportsbooks but favorites on the opposing coach’s lips, Minnesota United won for the first time at Children’s Mercy Park with a 3-0 decision over Sporting Kansas City on Thursday night, leaving it only two more victories from an MLS Cup.
Loons midfielder Kevin Molino scored two goals for a third consecutive game and attacking playmaker Emanuel Reynoso assisted on all three goals for a second consecutive game to send them into Monday’s Western Conference final on only three days’ rest against defending MLS Cup champion Seattle.
Until Thursday, the Loons had been outscored 15-1 in six previous games in Kansas City.
“Coming into this after the way I felt the last two games, I expected us to win this one,” said defender Michael Boxall, a Loon since midway through their inaugural season. “I just had a good feeling about the group.”
Earlier this week in a video call with reporters, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes had the audacity, citing “pundits” he had heard, to suggest fourth-seeded Minnesota United was favored over his top-seeded team.
Until Thursday, SKC had lost only two home playoffs games since its stadium — with an environment dubbed “Blue Hell” — opened in 2011. In that time, SKC missed the playoffs only once, last season.
“I asked Peter before the game how did he manage to keep a straight face when he said we were the favorites,” Heath said. “In light of the result, maybe he was right.”
Minnesota United — a franchise that allowed 70 and 71 goals in its first two MLS season starting in 2017 — has won its past three games, dating to the regular-season finale against FC Dallas, by identical 3-0 scores.
“There’s a lot of pleasing things,” Heath said. “As I’ve said all along to a lot of people, my belief in this group and the belief within the group is really, really high. If people on the outside don’t think that, that’s OK. The only people that matter are the players, the staff and probably our supporters now. I’m really happy for everybody.”
Ozzie Alonso and Romain Metanire returned to the Loons’ starting 11, but Sporting KC unexpectedly played without Alan Pulido, whom Vermes previously indicated in a video call would play despite a healing knee.
Pulido, SKC’s star striker from Mexico’s top league and for whom the team paid a club-record $9.5 million transfer last winter, didn’t play in the team’s first-round victory over San Jose.
The Loons survived the game’s opening minutes, when Boxall saved a certain goal with his head after only 90 seconds.
“I definitely owe him something now,” said goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, who eventually delivered his seventh clean sheet in 14 games this season. “That set the tone for the game.”
St. Clair made two startling saves not that long after to keep the game scoreless.
“In the cold light of day, if they had scored those first five minutes, it would have been a different game,” Heath said.
“But they didn’t score, and that’s the way football is. We scored goals in opportune moments on the attack.”
From there, the Loons scored three goals before halftime. Molino scored the first two, in the 27th and 35th minutes after he converted two more perfectly positioned and paced passes from Reynoso into his 12th and 13th goals this season. That’s his career high.
French defender Bakaye Dibassy’s rising header on Reynoso’s left-footed corner kick from the right made it 3-0 in the 39th minute and it stayed that way until game’s end.
Reynoso assisted on all three goals, just as he had in the team’s first-round home victory over Colorado. He now has 10 assists in his past five games.
“He’s a top-drawer player and a top-drawer guy,” Heath said.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.