Sporting Kansas City puts an end to Loons’ playoff hopes

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Minnesota United went into Saturday night’s game at Sporting Kansas City knowing that a win could still take them into the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Loons, the game was still taking place in Kansas.

MNUFC lost 3-1 Saturday, its ninth loss in nine regular-season tries against SKC on the road, and ended the year outside the postseason for the first time since 2018.

The Loons have endured plenty of upheaval this season. Their star player, Emanuel Reynoso, was suspended for most of the first half of the year, due to an unexcused absence from the team. In the stretch run, they went seven matches without a win, a stumble that led to the firing of longtime coach Adrian Heath.

In the end, it was all too much for Minnesota to overcome, and the Loons couldn’t claim a playoff spot on the season’s final day, as they did in 2021 and 2022.

Minnesota began the game in a different formation, playing three midfielders and three forwards, instead of their customary two and four. Interim manager Sean McAuley was clearly hoping to outnumber Kansas City in the midfield — but no formation could prevent simple defensive breakdowns.

Sporting KC’s first goal came in the 28th minute, courtesy of longtime Loon-killer Johnny Russell. The left-footed winger picked up the ball on the right edge of the Minnesota penalty area, cut past MNUFC midfielder Ján Gregus and drove a shot past Dayne St. Clair and inside the far post of the Minnesota net.

It was a goal that the forward must have scored dozens of times before in MLS. “We spoke about Johnny Russell, when he’s on that right-hand side he wants to cut in, so try and keep him outside and take him to his right foot,” McAuley said.

The second SKC goal came less than three minutes later, and it looked no better for the Minnesota defense. Dániel Sallói swung in a cross from the left side of the field, and Rémi Walter — running into wide-open space in the Loons’ penalty area — had a simple finish, all alone in front of the net. Gregus failed to track Walter’s run from the midfield, and left back Bakaye Dibassy was unable to react in time to alter the shot.

“I would have expected that runner to be tracked,” McAuley said.

Russell sealed the game in the 78th minute, with his second goal of the night. The winger blocked a Michael Boxall clearing attempt in the Loons’ penalty area, then poked the rebound under St. Clair. The winger has five goals and 10 assists in his career against Minnesota, seemingly all of them at Children’s Mercy Park.

Boxall stole a late consolation goal for Minnesota, heading home a Reynoso free kick to make the scoreline slightly more flattering for the Loons.

Heath came into the season as the only Western Conference coach who could boast four consecutive playoff appearances — but also having finished in the top 10 in the league just once, in 2019. In the end, he didn’t have a chance to claim a fifth consecutive berth. The lack of postseason soccer, plus the departure of Heath and technical director Mark Watson, will now give Minnesota something it hasn’t had since the club moved to MLS in 2017: a reset.

Whether a clean slate in the soccer department will help kickstart the franchise, which has punched above its weight but claimed no trophies in its first seven years of MLS existence, remains to be seen.

“It’s a really interesting time for the club, an inflection point for them,” said Wil Trapp, who captained the Loons on the night, but may have played his last game for the club. “Whatever comes next is the next iteration, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the club to take the next step and see what we can do and what we can achieve.”

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