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Sporting Kansas City tests Minnesota’s mettle, Loons hold on for 1-1 draw

MINNEAPOLIS — Short-range goals from Khiry Shelton and Darwin Quintero ultimately resulted in a 1-1 draw between first-place Sporting Kansas City (7-2-3, 24 points) and Minnesota United (4-7-1, 13 points). The Loons’ odds of upsetting the Western Conference leader looked promising early, but the hosts could only manage to weather  Kansas City’s second-half effort to preserve the stalemate.

Minnesota keeper Bobby Shuttleworth made nine saves on an afternoon when his team was outshot 24-6, and the Loons blocked a further five Kansas City shots.

“At halftime I thought we actually had a chance [to win] the game,” said Loons coach Adrian Heath. “I thought we weathered the first 10 to 15 [minutes], and I thought we had some really good moments on the counterattack.”

Kansas City took the lead in those opening 10 minutes, scoring in the 8th minute from a corner kick.

Khiry Shelton made a simple diagonal run, keeping his marker, Francisco Calvo, on his inside shoulder. Loons keeper Bobby Shuttleworth elected to stay on his line, with Johnny Russell’s driven corner finding Shelton at the edge of the 6-yard box for the forward’s first Kansas City goal.

“It’s a good ball,” Shuttleworth said. “It’s hit away from me and curling back in. I’ll have to look at it again and see what I could have done differently — like any other goalie.”

While Shuttleworth was at least entertaining second thoughts after the game, his manager declined to assign the keeper any blame.

Said Heath: “It looks like it was a really good ball, a lot of pace on it. It looks like [Shelton]’s just physically beaten [Calvo] because he’s 6-3, 6-4… a great athlete. Great ball in, great header.”

“It was a perfect service in,” Shelton said, describing Russell’s corner. “I beat the defender. It was a perfectly-placed ball and I was able to finish it.

May 20, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall (15) clears in the first half against Sporting Kansas City forward Khiry Shelton (14) at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As the first half unfolded, Miguel Ibarra found space attacking down Kansas City’s left flank. Sending in a pair of crosses in short succession, the energetic winger set up a game-tying goal with the second.

Picking out Darwin Quintero’s trailing run, Ibarra put the ball on Quintero’s head in a pocket of space between Sporting’s Ilie Sanchez and Ike Opara. Tim Melia made the initial save but the rebound fell into Quintero’s path and the attacking midfielder bundled the second chance in past the keeper.

It was Quintero’s third goal in six games for Minnesota since transferring from Club América on March 31.

Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes replaced left back Jimmy Medranda with Seth Sinovic in the 36th minute. The former struggled to match Ibarra for pace.

“I’m sure they caught onto it right away and tried to fix it by bringing another, more defensive, player in there,” Ibarra said.

“He’s had a knock,” Vermes said of Medranda. ” I appreciate the fact that he was trying to play with pain, but I could see he was a wounded animal a little bit on the field and I needed to get him off so that’s why I made the change. It was nothing to do with tactics, he was hurt going into the game. I could tell it was too much for him.”

The introduction of Sinovic helped contain Ibarra to an extent, but Minnesota was still threatening on the break. Though the Loons took five fewer chances, they ended the first half level with Sporting in both goals and shots on target (3).

Momentum shifted Kansas City’s way after halftime.

“Second half, I thought we never really got going,” said Heath. “With about 15, 20 [minutes] to go, we always looked like we might have a sneaking opportunity on the counter. But I would have to be honest, I would have settled for a point with about 20 minutes to go because they looked the more likely to go and win the game.”

Vermes’ charges took 15 second-half shots, placing seven on target, and held over 65-percent possession during the final 45-plus minutes.

“We dominated the whole second half,” Vermes said. “We didn’t give anything up on our goal and I thought we closed them down really well — especially on the counter. We created more than enough chances to get three points today.”

The longer the second half wore on, the more open the game became, with both teams bypassing one another’s midfield as play swung from end to end. But the two teams weren’t trading a balanced number of blows, and the Loons had to dig in to hold onto a result.

Kansas City’s best chance to claim all three points came in the 77th minute, when Dániel Sallói got around the edge of Minnesota’s back four and picked out Graham Zusi at the back post.

As Shuttleworth scrambled across his goalmouth, Zusi’s header found only the side netting, resulting in a goal kick and the fullback holding his head in his hands.

Loons midfielder Rasmus Schüller took a knock to the head and was replaced by centerback Brent Kallman, pushing Minnesota’s captain, Calvo, forward into midfield.

Heath said his decision to bring on another defender late when forced to make a substitution was a reflection of the opponent’s momentum and achieved the desired result.

That particular result — a tie — was the Loons’ first in a dozen games this season.

Asked why Minnesota’s previous games produced a definitive victor, Heath said, “You look at the Atlanta game where we had over 80-percent possession and why we don’t score in that game and at least take a point is beyond me. And there’s other times you end up picking up points and maybe you don’t deserve it. I’m not saying this was one of them days, but you never can tell.”

“I think this is one of them games even last year we would have lost this game. I do believe we’re now starting to get a little bit more of a steely resolve about us and determination not to concede goals.”

Russell assessed the draw from Kansas City’s perspective, saying, “We’ve got the quality to come and [win] that, but they made it difficult for us and they could have had a couple themselves, as well. It was a difficult game, playing in the heat as well. It’s another point on the road but obviously we’d have wished for the three.”

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