Four keys to a Minnesota United playoff victory against Sporting Kansas City

Minnesota United is not feeling blue about entering Blue Hell.
While the club is 0-7 since 2014 at Children’s Mercy Park, the venue with that ominous nickname, the Loons know they can’t change their past at Sporting Kansas City. But United feels like this team is as strong as it has ever been, and the fourth-seeded Loons can alter the future against top-seeded Sporting in a Western Conference semifinal at 7:31 p.m. Thursday on FOX.
“We can’t do anything about what’s gone on,” said United manager Adrian Heath, who is 0-6 in Kansas. “That’s gone, it’s past. We don’t forget it; we try to take lessons from it. All I know is this is the best group of players in maybe the best form, the best confidence we have going to K.C. Now, that doesn’t count for a lot if we don’t perform.”
Here are four key factors for the MLS Cup Playoffs match:
START FAST
Throughout its MLS existence, United has a propensity to start slow on the road, often putting them in an early hole and drawing Heath’s ire. That’s how it went when Minnesota fell to SKC 1-0 on Sept. 13. Johnny Russell got the winning goal in the 80th minute.
“We started the game really flat,” defender Chase Gasper said. “It hurts when you give up an entire first half and then they come out and in the second half, chance after chance, you’re most likely going to concede.”
Whe Loons score first, they are 10-0-3 this season, while K.C. is 10-2-1 when netting the opening goal.
The Loons also need to be mindful coming out of halftime. They have conceded seven goals in the opening 15 minutes after of the break, the most of any window this season.
RELATED: War of (kind) words: Loons and Sporting spar for role of playoff underdog
ATTACKING PROWESS
When Heath moved winger Robin Lod to more of a “false nine” position — a striker that doesn’t play up to pass much and moves deeper to connect more with midfielders — the Loons have scored three goals per game.
Kevin Molino scored twice and Lod once in the 3-0 win over Colorado Rapids in the opening-round playoff game on Nov. 22. Central attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso assisted on all three.
In the 3-0 win over FC Dallas in the regular-season finale, Molino scored twice and Reynoso once. Lod had primary or secondary assists on all three.
K.C. coach Peter Vermes “is smart enough guy to know that we have people in this team now who can cause any team in MLS problems, and that is what we have got to look to do,” Heath said.
Sporting is expected to welcome back forward Alan Pulido, who has 11 combined goals and assists in 12 games this year. He missed the opening-round shootout win over San Jose with a knee injury.
“It’s a big boost for them, but it’s something that we’ve mentioned every time we’ve been through their team,” Heath said.
PENALTY KICKS
Eighth seed San Jose nearly beat K.C. in the quarterfinals. It was 3-3 after added time, but goalkeeper Tim Melia made three saves on penalty kicks to top the Earthquakes. Melia is 6-0 in his career in penalties.
United’s second-year goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has not had a game go to PKs in his short MLS career but can take confidence from stopping former Loon teammates Darwin Quintero’s in-game penalty against Houston on Sept. 19.
STILL IN KANSAS
Heath’s confidence derives from a team full of “hardened professionals who know what is at stake,” plus the fact United is on a a nine-game unbeaten streak (5-0-4) and has’t lost since Sept. 23 to Columbus. The Crew will play New England in the Eastern Conference final.
The Loons also take a boost from having beat Sporting 2-1 in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Fla., in July. Minnesota got two stoppage time goals to nip that victory.
“We think we can go and compete and win, and I know they’re probably bitter about how we beat them down in Orlando late,” winger Ethan Finlay said. “It’s going to be a great contest.”
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