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Minnesota United headed to Kansas City, where it has been at its worst

MINNEAPOLIS — Major League Soccer has promoted this Thursday-to-Sunday stretch as "rivalry week," but the Saturday night, Aug. 25, Minnesota United-Sporting Kansas City match has been excluded from the league's nine featured games.

From a Loons perspective, that's probably best, because all three prior games at Children's Mercy Park have been polar opposites of the hotly contested games that engender the bitterness vital for a matchup to be called a rivalry.

Since joining MLS last season, the Loons have been outscored 11-1 in three games at Kansas City — 3-0 in an MLS game on June 3, 2017, and 4-0 in a U.S. Open Cup game two weeks later. On June 3 this year, United lost 4-1 and needed a rare goal from defender Tyrone Mears to even get on the score sheet.

While Minnesota United has struggled on the road in MLS — 4-22-3 since the start of 2017 — trips to Kansas have produced some of the Loons' weakest efforts, leaving coach Adrian Heath to address the lack of competitiveness with his players Thursday.

"To use a boxing analogy, I don't think we've ever laid a glove on them when we've been away," Heath said. "That has to change."

Heath called the 3-0 defeat to Kansas City in 2017 "probably the most disappointing since I've been here" as well as "embarrassingly bad."

In Minnesota's brief MLS history, Kansas City has been pegged as its most logical natural rival. Compared to the other 22 teams in the league, there is a relatively short distance between them (450 miles) and both play in the Western Conference.

In games in Minnesota, however, the Loons are undefeated against SKC, with enough drama to stir up the makings of a rivalry.

In May 2017, United beat Kansas City 2-0 in a game that featured United midfielder Sam Cronin taking exception to then-Sporting forward Dom Dwyer's hard challenge into Cronin's leg. Cronin got in Dwyer's face; Dwyer and United defender Francisco Calvo were each given yellow cards for the fracas.

United also has a pair of 1-1 draws with SKC in Minnesota, including May 20 this season.

United's uphill climb in Kansas on Saturday will be even more difficult without its best player, midfielder Darwin Quintero. With team highs of 10 goals and nine assists, Quintero will miss his second game because of a calf injury. The goal is for him to return for Minnesota's next game against D.C. United on Sept. 12.

Rodriguez trending close

Without Quintero, more goal-scoring responsibility will be played on new forward Angelo Rodriguez, who is scoreless in his first three games with the Loons.

"I think you'll see a bit of impatience (from me) for not having scored a goal yet," Rodriguez said in Spanish through a translator. "Obviously I'm not going to be satisfied because we're losing and I haven't scored. But that's why we keep working."

United's GPS monitoring of Rodriguez's sprint distances have been impressive thus far, with numbers similar to the team's regular highest performer, winger Miguel Ibarra.

Jarryd Phillips, United's head of fitness and sports science, said this belies the belief that Rodriguez is a big target forward who just hangs out near the opposing 18-yard box waiting for the ball. He has shown some bullish runs from midfield with the ball at his feet, especially in the 2-2 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Aug. 11.

"He's surprised a lot of us in the first games where not only his high-speed numbers, but his sprinting numbers are almost comparable to some of our wide players," Phillips said.

For Rodriguez to score, his teammates must do a better job providing him with the ball, something that was missing when Quintero was out in the 2-0 loss at FC Dallas last weekend.

"That is something that we've spoke about and getting more support and utilizing (Rodriguez's) strengths and then working from there," Heath said. "But we've been very pleased with him."

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