Minnesota United defender Jose Aja, center, gets hit in the face by the ball on a penalty kick by Sporting KC forward Alan Pulido (9) during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, July 12, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

After four-odd months, Minnesota United at last took the pitch for a game against Sporting Kansas City as the Loons opened their run in the MLS Is Back Tournament. Played under the lights of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and the oppressive humidity of the Florida summer, the game opened with Sporting Kansas City asserting themselves and gradually pinning Minnesota in their own end, eventually going up 1-0 at the end of the first half. As SKC tired, though, MNUFC grew into the game and after goalkeeper Tim Melia was sent off with a red card in the 75th minute, the Loons pounced on sub keeper Richard Sanchez, scoring twice in stoppage time to bring home all three points.

While both teams looked a little loose and nervy to begin the game, Sporting wrangled the momentum through the first half. Minnesota’s passing left a lot to be desired and SKC’s Gadi Kinda could have had a brace in the first 15 minutes of the game. Minnesota keenly felt the absences of centerback Ike Opara, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and forward Luis Amarilla, who was a late scratch after picking up a groin injury in warmups. Lacking both defensive solidity and real danger up top, the Loons couldn’t find an identity in the early going.

By the final five minutes of regulation in the first half, the Loons had 10 men in their final third, just doing whatever they could to hold off SKC. In the 43rd minute, Minnesota had gotten some contiguous possession in SKC’s final third, but it opened them up to counterattack when forward Alan Pulido turned defender Michael Boxall beautifully and sprang Khiry Shelton on the break. Isolated and out ahead of the defense, Shelton drove the ball into the box and goalkeeper Tyler Miller badly misjudged the play, taking a big step toward the far post and opening up enough daylight for Shelton to slot the ball on the near post and give SKC a 1-0 lead.

The second half was more of the same, until Mason Toye came up injured after a collision along the sideline in the 58th minute. Forward Aaron Schoenfeld came in for Toye and the Loons began to show some life. In the 64th minute, a corner kick by midfielder Jan Gregus pinged around in front of goal before midfielder Ethan Finlay snuck in on the back post and put it in, but video review would ultimately determine that midfielder Kevin Molino was offside on the goal.

A taste of scoring, though, turned out to be enough. Schoenfeld picked up the ball off a long, lofted through ball by defender Romain Metanire in the 74th minute and caught Melia off his line. Melia charged the ball, leaving his box and his feet to tangle Schoenfeld up and he was immediately shown red. Kinda came off for goalkeeper Richard Sanchez and SKC would play the rest of the game with 10 men.

Rather than sit on its lead, Sporting continued to press forward when the opportunity presented itself and at first, MNUFC didn’t quite seem up to grasping the moment. But Sporting’s energy began to flag, leading to riskier challenges and free kicks and corners for the Loons, who took advantage of the seven minutes of stoppage time.

In the 92nd minute, a free kick by Gregus outside the box curled just over the waiting head of Schoenfeld and ricocheted into the goal off the chest of Shelton and leveling the game at 1-1. Then, in the 97th minute, MNUFC mustered all their collective energy as Metanire grabbed the ball down and pushed it deep into the right wing. His cross found substitute Raheem Edwards on the far post and Edwards sent it back towards the middle and a waiting Molino, who banged it off the turf and past the helpless Sanchez to give MNUFC the 2-1 win at the death.

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