In the small pre-COVID sampling of MLS matches, Minnesota United and Sporting KC were arguably the two most impressive teams in the league. Both square off in their Group D opener in Orlando on Sunday trying to regain that form.
The Loons (2-0-0) grabbed the maximum six points on the road before the pandemic, winning 3-1 at Portland before putting San Jose to the sword in a 5-2 thrashing. Former Sporting KC defender Ike Opara, Luis Amarilla, and Kevin Molino each scored two goals across those matches, and Minnesota United showed plenty of aerial prowess with four of its eight goals coming via headers.
Amarillo is looking to extend his form, having used the training to further his chemistry with Molino and Ethan Finlay in attack.
We're getting to know each other more and more every day and that's what is needed to connect well on the field," Amarilla said via translator to the team's official website. "That's what we will show this weekend and we are ready to get going with everything."
Opara did not make the trip to Florida as the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year continues to rehab a preexisting injury, with Jose Aja his likely replacement. The Loons are thin at center back as Brent Kallman still has three matches to serve on a 10-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy last season.
Right back, though, is secure as Roman Metanire signed a new multiyear deal with the club Friday. Metanire was the Loons' lone All-Star last year and represented Madagascar at the African Cup of Nations.
"He's fully deserved his contract extension because what you see is what you get," said MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath. "He's incredibly popular, not only with the group but with supporters and very popular within the league, trust me. A lot of the coaches like the way he plays. We're just glad we've got him signed for a few more years. If he can continue to play like he's done, since he's been here. He will continue to be one of the best players in the league in his position."
Metanire, Aja, and the Loons will have their hands full with a Sporting KC side that racked up seven goals in wins at Vancouver and home versus Houston. Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda share the team lead with two goals apiece, but what stood out was an offense that can originate from anywhere on the pitch.
Eight different players registered at least one assist, with Johnny Russell the lone player with two. Manager Peter Vermes is excited to get going again, and thinks the humidity in Orlando should not be a problem for adjustments given the hot Kansas City summers.
"As long as it keeps getting hot like it is right now and gets hotter, that should only help us get acclimated like we need to," he told the club's official website. "Hopefully it'll be this way for the next few weeks and we'll get a good dose of being able to acclimate ourselves to the weather. You don't want to go down there and just get the uppercut to the jaw when you step out of your car. We've got to make sure we've done something to get ourselves ready."
Kinda, who is on loan from Beitar Jerusalem, has formed a quick partnership with Pulido, the Mexico international who was also Sporting KC's marquee offseason signing. Pulido has gotten SKC off to the right foot early in both matches, scoring before the 20th minute in each contest.
"Alan is an incredible professional," Vermes said. "I had an idea in my head of how Alan would fit into our team, he has surpassed all my expectations. His soccer qualities - I had a good idea of how they would fit into our team - and I've been amazed at how much better in my mind's eye I thought he was going to fit in."