The state’s first major professional sports team to return since a virus shut them all down in March, Minnesota United on Sunday night played its first 90 minutes and then some in those four long months.
It needed every minute to beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 in its MLS is Back Tournament opener.
The Loons scored twice late in second-half stoppage time — in the 92nd and 97th minutes — and persevered after they spent months isolated at home, working out individually at first and then getting swabs shoved up their noses for the past weeks.
All to play again in a suspended season during which they are now 3-0, with nine points won.
“The words that spring to mind are character and adversity,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said by video conference calls from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando. “When it’s 1-nil you always have a chance, in any game.”
The Loons hadn’t played since March 7, when they started the season with consecutive victories at Portland and San Jose, outscoring their opponents 8-3 in those games. Five days later, MLS suspended its season.
Just when you thought Sporting Kansas City winger Khiry Shelton’s 43rd-minute counterattacking goal might stand Sunday, Loons midfielder Jan Gregus knocked a free kick off Shelton’s body in the 92nd minute. It deflected past goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, who entered in the 77th minute after Sporting KC starter Tim Melia got a red card and game ejection for obstructing Loons striker Aaron Schoenfeld’s open path toward the goal.
Five minutes later, Loons veteran Kevin Molino scored the winner with an opportunistic left-footed goal from inside the penalty box on a Disney complex practice field where he and Heath once together toiled in the USL.
“Everybody knows what I think of Kevin Molino,” Heath said. “When he plays like tonight and starts to influence the game and makes the opposition worried because they want him to get the ball, there aren’t many player better than him.”
The Loons overcame missing four injured starting players, beginning with two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, captain Ozzie Alonso and strikers Luis Amarilla and Mason Toye as well. Opara stayed behind in Minnesota two weeks ago to rehabilitate an injury. Alonso was ruled out and replaced by Hassani Dotson with what Heath first called a slight hamstring injury and termed Sunday an abductor/thigh issue.
Toye left in the 59th minute after he was hit hard from behind.
No matter. Schoenfeld and Raheem Edwards simply came on during a hot and humid night and contributed to the comeback and the two goals.
“That’s part of this game. That’s part of soccer,” said Loons veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay, whose 65th-minute goal was overturned by video review. “I’m just really proud of our group tonight, I really am. This is a character win. We know we can play far better than that. But to deal with everything that we’ve dealt with the last three months, losing our leaders, doesn’t get more dire than that.”
Finlay afterward said he was “absolutely exhausted” and admitted it took his team more than a half to find its pace and legs.
“We were in a little bit of shambles,” Finlay said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”
Amarilla limped off the field about 10 minutes before kickoff after he suffered an abductor injury himself during warmups. He received a pat on the shoulder from Heath as he went.
Heath said he would know more Monday — “if it’ll be a few days or a few weeks,” Heath said — after Amarilla slept with the injury overnight.
Even with all four players out, the Loons grew their season-starting winning to streak to three games, four months after they last played, and won.
“At one stage today, I’d taken a point willingly,” Heath said. “To come out with three points is huge for us … I’m not going to sit here and say we played well. That’d be foolish and I thought Kansas City was very good. We can and will play better than we did tonight.”
The Star Tribune will not be traveling to Florida this month for MLS, NBA and WNBA coverage. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.