MNUFC tallies 100th club win with 3-1 result over SKC

Minnesota United players celebrate goal scored by Robin Lod (17) while Sporting KC defender Robert Castellanos (19) is left dejected at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, June 1, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

For the second time this season, Minnesota United FC hosted perennial challenger Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, June 1. While a struggling Peter Vermes side threw things against the wall hoping something (anything) would stick, Eric Ramsay trusted the kids and it paid dividends.

Starting lineups for MNUFC v SKC on June 1, 2024. Graphic courtesy of MLS MatchCenter

With match minutes adding up on already-tired legs, and the looming absences of no fewer than eight international players, Eric Ramsay tested his bench’s depth, rolling out a 5-2-3 that, in play, looked more like a 3-4-3. Caden Clark was set to start at right back but was scratched early on in the warm-up and replaced by DJ Taylor. (It was too much, too soon for Taylor but more on that later.) With Hasanni Dotson not quite match-fit, paired with Wil Trapp was Carlos Harvey, getting his third start in four matches. Robin Lod and Teemu Pukki began the night on the bench while a flashy front three in Bongi Hlongwane, Tani Oluwaseyi, and Sang Bin Jeong, got things rolling.

As usual, Bongi and Sang Bin were constantly switching sides, dropping in with interlapping runs down the wing. Along with Oluwaseyi, plus wingbacks Taylor and Devin Padelford, they were able to create some chances from chaos inside of SKC’s box in the opening five minutes but Tim Melia and his back line were prepared, leaving few spaces to open up a shooting lane. Rightback Jake Davis, in particular, had Padelford’s number early, a match-up that is sure to grow with the ever-repeated “nicest rivalry in sports”. At the other end, Willy Agada and Marinos Tzionis were doing the same to the Loons. Agada found space in the 6th minute but curled his shot from distance well wide of goal.

It seemed inevitable in the first 20 minutes that Sang Bin would tally the opener for the Loons. He repeatedly found space between Davis and Rosero and challenged Melia in close-quarters. Padelford found the forward inside the penalty area in the 22nd minute Sang Bin sent a clean header on frame but Melia caught it on the bounce. Kansas City continued to hold off the onslaught until the 33rd minute, when Bongi found Oluwaseyi at the far post.

It was Oluwaseyi’s seventh goal of the season (just three shy of Emanuel Reynoso’s total in 2022, his best season with the Loons). He has played a total of 620 minutes across 15 matches – one goal every 88.5 minutes.

“The one thing Eric [Ramsay] said before the game is that what helped us really well during the run we were on was those pressing actions, winning those second and third balls,” Oluwaseyi said after the game. “I think you saw from the first 15-20 [minutes] we did a really good job of that, you even had Boxy [Boxall] going all the way to their 18-yard box to win the ball. If we can be a team that wants to press, that wants to win those second and third balls, it will press in good set.”

Minnesota carried the 1-0 lead into halftime but had one more personnel setback before the break. DJ Taylor, the late replacement for Caden Clark, went down with a cramp after a particularly intense stretch of runs down the wing. Scratching Clark was a tough decision for Ramsay but one he felt had to be made:

“It was an innocuous one that surfaced in training yesterday and he [Clark] has just felt over the course of the day that he was not in a position to play or I did not want to risk him. He was probably 50-50, I did not want to take the chance that we would end up losing a sub in the first half because I knew it would be one of those games where we really needed to make five subs as the game went on.”

Regarding Taylor, Ramsay added, “It is unfortunate that it is a set of circumstances that has led to DJ [Taylor] getting injured because obviously he was not due to start and almost for good reason given his output over the last couple of games so It is a real shame that set of circumstances has conspired to put us in a difficult position there but that is collateral damage of a really tough week I suppose.”

Joseph Rosales replaced Taylor in the 42nd minute and made his presence known early in the second half. With a little more speed than Taylor, Rosales outran Dany Rosero more than once. Also outrunning Rosero – Oluwaseyi. The forward’s pass in to Robin Lod in the 67th minute led to the Loons’ second goal, finnished with a casual one-time tap by Lod for his fifth goal of the season

Padelford explained that he and Oluwaseyi (with help from Dayne St Clair) have been training for those throw-in setpieces ever since Ramsay noticed a trend in cornerkicks being earned from plays following throw-ins:

“I just do the long throw in down the line. But no, it’s crazy. We actually did that, we’ve been doing that in training sessions because we create the most corner kicks off the throw ins from that area. So, I mean with this guy running, like just throw it down there and he is probably going to get on the end of it and then you see it could cut back to Robin [Lod] and rest is history, you know it’s a goal. So, no, it was executed to perfection and it was awesome. That’s why I went over and pointed at him [Dayne St. Clair]  because I was like, this is the training, this is the session. Yeah, it was awesome.”

Kervin Arriaga added a third goal in the 83rd minute.

The Wonderwall started chanting, “We want more! We want more!” One player was more than happy to oblige in the 85th minute. His name was Johnny Russell.

It was only his second goal of the season, but his 11th all time against Minnesota. It was a career milestone for him: His 58th regular season goal moved him into second place on Sporting KC’s all-time leading scorer (Dom Dwyer drops to third).

Asked for his thoughts on Russell’s perennial performances against the Loons, Ramsay said:

“Yes, I actually think they have a good set of front players. I think that is unquestionable there for which he [Russell] is one and it all appears to me that they will inevitably become good because they  have a lot of qualities on top of the pitch. I remember prior to the first game we did a really big piece on how we would stop their individual forwards. Johnny Russell is one and in some senses he is a very good player in this league but he will score goals in largely, the same way he will create often so we obviously have a very specific plan as to how we will deal with him, but of course he is a very good player, very good in front of goal. It is not always as easy as it might seem on the PowerPoint presentation to the players unfortunately.”

It is going to take more than a PowerPoint presentation to get Peter Vermes’ side back in play in 2024. The result  buries Sporting firmly at the bottom of the West with a 2-9-5 (W-L-D) record and -7 goal differential.

The Loons, however, bounced up to third (with other Western Conference teams still to play on Sunday), a reasonable position to be in with the departure of eight internationals looming. “We obviously have given ourselves a bit of breathing space with a good result today which is a big thing,” Ramsay said. “But I’m genuinely excited about how we will shape up next week and see what we can produce.”

Minnesota United FC has a full week before they have to take the pitch again with 12th place FC Dallas coming to town on Saturday, June 8. Rosales is already ruled out due to yellow card accumulation. A lot of young players will have a chance to earn their spots or cement their roles in the 18.