Preview: Sporting to Host Minnesota on Thursday in Conference Semifinals
Children's Mercy Park will welcome a primetime network television audience on Thursday night as top-seeded Sporting Kansas City battles No. 4 seed Minnesota United FC in the Western Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. The newest installment of the regional rivalry will kick off at 7:31 p.m. CT with live national coverage beginning at 7 p.m. CT on FOX, FOX Deportes and the FOX Sports app.
Supporters can also catch the pivotal encounter locally on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and La Grande 1340 AM (Spanish), with The Final Whistle postgame show airing immediately afterward on 94.5 FM. Additionally, fans can access the Sporting KC app for an exclusive pregame program at 7 p.m. CT featuring player interviews and analysis from broadcast trio Nate Bukaty, Jacob Peterson and Carter Augustine.
As part of a playoff celebration, fans in attendance on Thursday can utilize mobile ordering via the Sporting KC app to receive 50% off all jersey purchases at the stadium. Ticket holders are also invited to participate in a scratcher game on the app that will award numerous prizes to contestants over the course of the night.
With stadium capacity reduced to 18% and comprehensive health and safety protocols in place, sold-out Children's Mercy Park is set to host a mouthwatering matchup between two in-form teams that prevailed over lower-seeded opposition in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Led by 12th-year manager Peter Vermes, Sporting ended the 2020 regular season with a 6-1-1 record to claim their fourth first-place conference finish since 2011 and edged the San Jose Earthquakes in an unforgettable Round One contest on Nov. 22. That same night, Minnesota claimed their first-ever playoff win by defeating the Colorado Rapids after going 4-0-4 in their last eight regular season fixtures.
The winner of Thursday's showdown will advance to the Western Conference Final on Monday night against reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders FC. Sporting are seeking their ninth conference final appearance in club history -- the second-most in MLS history -- and own homefield advantage through MLS Cup on Dec. 12. Minnesota has reached the conference semifinal stage for the first time and would travel to face Seattle if they beat Sporting on Thursday.
Sporting's wild Round One victory over San Jose packed plenty of drama, as midfielders Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez and Gianluca Busio scored goals in a 3-3 draw before goalkeeper Tim Melia stole the show during penalty kicks. The 34-year-old veteran became the first MLS keeper ever to save all three penalties in a shootout -- improving his career shootout record to a perfect 6-0 in the process -- while Ilie, Johnny Russell and Khiry Shelton converted their spot kicks to secure the first 3-0 shootout result in MLS playoff history. At age 18, Busio notably became the youngest MLS player to score a goal and record an assist in a playoff game.
Minnesota enjoyed easier passage to the conference semifinal round, cruising to a 3-0 home triumph against Colorado at Allianz Field. Trinidadian standout Kevin Molino scored twice, bringing his team-leading goal total to 11 this season in all competitions, while Finnish international Robin Lod bagged his 10th goal of the year for good measure. Argentine playmaker Emanuel Reynoso, who joined the Loons on a high-profile transfer from South American powerhouse Boca Juniors in September, assisted on all three goals and now has 10 assists in 14 MLS appearances this year.
On the Sporting sideline, Vermes has arguably the most balanced attack in MLS at his disposal. Russell, Mexican striker Alan Pulido and Israeli midfielder Gadi Kinda scored a team-best six goals apiece during the regular season, while Shelton and fellow forward Erik Hurtado added five each. Minnesota, meanwhile, boasts a dynamic midfield with Molino, Lod and Reynoso supported by wide player Ethan Finlay and deep-lying veterans Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso.
While Melia carries more than a decade of professional experience into Thursday's matchup -- highlighted by a pair of U.S. Open Cup titles and seven playoff appearances at Sporting -- Minnesota will also have confidence in their 23-year-old man between the posts. Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair earned the starting job in early September and has seven shutouts in 14 matches, building a 7-2-5 record and a 0.86 goals against average.
Sporting have met Minnesota 13 times in all competitions since the Loons joined MLS in 2017, posting a 7-4-2 record as well as a perfect 6-0-0 mark at home. In six previous visits to Children's Mercy Park, the Loons have been outscored 15-1 and have never led in 540 minutes of action.
Thursday will mark the fourth head-to-head meeting of 2020 and the first playoff contest between the sides. Minnesota landed the first punch this year on July 12, erasing a late deficit to win 2-1 in the MLS is Back Tournament group stage at Walt Disney World. Sporting exacted revenge with a 2-1 road victory at Allianz Field on Aug. 21, benefiting from an early Kinda strike and a Minnesota own goal to hand the Loons their first regular season home loss since June 2019. The most recent meeting on Sept. 13 saw Russell convert an 80th-minute winner in a cagey 1-0 result at Children's Mercy Park.
Sporting and Minnesota were scheduled to play at Children's Mercy Park on the penultimate weekend of the regular season, but the Nov. 1 fixture was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns within the Minnesota team.
(1) Sporting Kansas City vs. (4) Minnesota United FC
Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Semifinal
Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 | 7:31 p.m. CT
Children's Mercy Park | Kansas City, Kansas
English TV | FOX
Spanish TV | FOX Deportes
Streaming | FOX Sports App
English Radio | ESPN 94.5 FM
Spanish Radio | La Grande 1340 AM
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