Sometimes one game – in this case, just one half, really – can feel like a paradigm shift, a changing of the guard.
So it was on Thursday night, as Minnesota United clambered into the MLS elite via those absorbing, astonishing first 40 minutes of dominance over Sporting KC at Children’s Mercy Park, a comprehensive undoing of the club and manager/sporting director that Minnesota have patterned themselves after since their arrival in the league.
The Loons sure didn’t look like underdogs, did they?
“Yeah, I said to Peter [Vermes] before the game, how did you manage to keep a straight face when he said we were the favorites? Although in light of the result, he was maybe right,” wisecracked MNUFC boss Adrian Heath in his postgame press conference.
“It was a big win for us, big performance. And something that I thought before the game, I did say to the guys, if we don't beat ourselves and give something away – which we nearly did in the beginning – I fancied us strongly.”
Highlights: Sporting KC 0, Minnesota United 3
They would be quick to point out that they’re not done yet, not by a long stretch. But at this point we can finally and completely dispense with all that “Minnesota nice stuff” for the foreseeable future. The Loons are a legit MLS power now. They are highly talented. They are motivated and confident. They can win in a variety of different ways, and they are comfortable going toe to toe with anyone.
As it turns out, all that underdogging it on Heath’s part was just that – dogging it. Whatever he says in public, rest assured that the Loons head coach plays a much different tune to his team behind closed doors.
“I know within this group … there's no one we’re afraid of playing, or no one we think we can't beat in this league. So I mean, the underdog talk, that's for you guys to write about,” said center back Michael Boxall, who set the stage for Kevin Molino and Bebelo Reynoso’s attacking heroics with his 2nd-minute goal-line clearance to deny Johnny Russell.
“Even during the course of a 90-minute game, Adrian says so much stuff – you take in some, you ignore some, you get on with the game.”
If the Loons take their coach seriously but not literally, they’ve certainly taken his tactical teachings to heart. The late-season arrival of $5 million man Reynoso – who has now assisted on all six of MNUFC’s postseason goals – has pushed this group into a new echelon of intricacy, not only adding the Argentine’s playmaking genius but also unlocking the best of Kevin Molino, Robin Lod (who was quietly essential as a false No. 9 on Thursday) and the rest of the attacking corps.
They presented Sporting with tests they simply could not cope with.
“He's elevated everybody else who’s played around him, because they enjoy playing with him,” said Heath of Reynoso, who took several months for Minnesota to acquire from Boca Juniors but is paying rich dividends now. “We were never in any doubt about his ability. That's why we never wavered. He was our guy, we were not going to move on. And to be fair to the kid, he wanted to come. We spoke a few times and it looked like, a couple of times, it wasn't going to happen. I told him to be patient, this will happen. And eventually we got it done.”
Heath noted that Reynoso’s defensive work rate is also evolving the side in a positive direction, allowing them to push forward and control space more assertively after spending long stretches of the past two seasons in a more reactive posture.
In Kansas City, they also got a breakout performance from young goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, pressed into service ahead of schedule this year due to an injury to starter Tyler Miller and showing himself ready for that challenge. St. Clair, 23, made two striking saves in the opening minutes and has now posted clean sheets in his first two career playoff games.
The Loons have not lost a match since a 2-1 loss at Columbus on Sept. 23, a 10-game run that they sound bullish of extending on Monday when they visit the Seattle Sounders (9:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), despite two days’ fewer rest than the defending champs.
Riding a lengthy postseason win streak of their own, Seattle will be favored. Minnesota won’t mind.
“We spoke about, a few weeks ago, can we go undefeated ‘til the end of the season? And then we said we've got five games, if we win five games we’ll be MLS champs. Now we've got two,” said Heath. “And the last three games, 3-0. Big games, important games, a lot at stake. I think that's a testimony to the players. I thought we actually were really resolute late on in our defending, we played when we could, we cleared it when we should. And there's a lot of pleasing things.
“But 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. And if people on the outside don't think that, that's OK. Because the only people that matter are the players and the staff, and probably our supporters now. So I'm really happy for everybody.”