Loons’ season, MLS playoff streak end with 3-1 loss to Sporting KC

Minnesota United's turbulent season ended on MLS Decision Day with Saturday's defining 3-1 loss at Sporting Kansas City.

It started with All-Star midfielder Emanuel Reynoso absent and for a time suspended until he played his first game June 3. It ended when interim coach Sean McAuley coached the final two regular-season games after the club fired the only head coach it ever had, Adrian Heath.

In between, the Loons lost too many leads or ties late in game and squandered too many results at home in Allianz Field. The Loons went 4-4-9 there, fewest in the Western Conference except for last-place Colorado's three home wins.

The Loons beat LA Galaxy 5-2 at home two weeks ago in McAuley's first game. They lost Saturday after conceding two goals within three minutes in the first half and then allowed another in the 78th minute before Loons defender Michael Boxall scored his team's only goal, in the 82nd minute.

"Disappointed, really disappointed," McAuley said. "All the players are disappointed. I feel for them. We had the high of the last game and went into this one feeling what would be an upset because we never won here [in the regular season] before. We thought we'd have a good chance."

Instead, Sporting KC's captain and proven Loon-beater Johnny Russell and midfielder Rémi Walter scored those consecutive goals. They did so on a night when both the Loons and Sporting needed to win and then needed some help, too, from three other teams to make the playoffs.

Russell scored again, in the 78th for his brace.

For Sporting (12-14-8), it's their 11th trip in 13 seasons there. It became the only team to reach the playoffs after starting the season winless in the first 10 games, at 0-7-3.

For the Loons (10-13-11), it stopped them from reaching the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. They hadn't missed since 2018, their second MLS season.

The Loons' seven-game winless streak late in the season included a lifeless 5-1 loss at Los Angeles F.C. that helped ensure Heath's firing along with technical director Mark Watson.

McAuley coached the team to a 5-2 home victory over LA Galaxy two weeks ago, which sent the Loons to Kansas City on Saturday needing to win for a chance to reach the playoffs.

"Any season ending is never easy," Loons veteran midfielder Wil Trapp said. "We're disappointed, right? It's reality. At the same time, there was no quit in this group at the end. I take some positive from that, but there was disappointment the way the game went. No one quit. I'm super proud of the boys for that."

Kansas City needed to do the same.

It did, then Sporting got the help it needed when Portland lost to Houston while Dallas beat LA Galaxy and San Jose tied Austin. That left the Timbers and Loons out. San Jose plays at Kansas City Wednesday in a wild-card playoff game.

BOXSCORE: Sporting Kansas City 3, Loons 1

Sporting had listed stars Alan Pulido and Russell as questionable because of foot and groin injuries respectively. But both started.

Russell now has five goals and 10 assists all-time against the Loons. His first goal on Saturday came on a 1-on-1 move when he cut inside Loons midfielder Ján Gregus and struck a left-footed shot not far inside the 18-yard box for a 1-0 lead.

The Loons arrived at Children's Mercy Park having won there just once in since they entered MLS in 2019 – a 3-0 victory in the 2020 playoffs. Saturday's loss was the Loons' ninth loss in 10 games.

McAuley made one significant change to Saturday's lineup, starting experienced Franco Fragapane in young Bongokuhle Hlongwane's place in an unusual 4-3-2-1 formation. Fragapane and Reynoso played up front. They played just behind striker Teemu Pukki, who scored four goals against the Galaxy two weeks earlier..

Hlongwane was one of six Loons players who returned from national-team duty by Thursday's training after each had been gone the previous 10 days. The player who traveled the farthest there and back was Bongokuhle. McAuley said all that travel influenced his decision to bring Hlongwane off the bench in the 66th minute.

After the game, McAuley was asked if this is the start of new era with the club heading into an offseason when they'll hire a new coach and general manager.

"I would say the start of a new one," he said. "The club has to move on, that's just the nature of the beast. It's something that's going to be quite exciting for the club to get the situation sorted out and decide what they want to do, what they want to achieve. That's the same for the players. You want to make sure they don't sit there at the end of next season and say, `I cant believe all them other teams got in and we didn't.' "

The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.