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The Loons should take the U.S. Open Cup seriously

Let the most cynical, hardened English soccer fan get to reminiscing, and eventually he’ll wistfully rhapsodize about “the magic of the FA Cup.” England’s yearly knockout cup competition, the world’s oldest, gives every team in England, from the best of the Premier League down to the lowliest tenth-division semi-pro team, a chance of lifting the trophy at Wembley Stadium in May. A team of fifth-division nobodies might host one of the world’s biggest teams, as happened last year when Sutton United hosted Arsenal in the fifth round. Just this year, third-division Wigan Athletic knocked out Premier League champions Manchester City.

The United States’s version of the FA Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, is nearly as old as its English cousin. This year’s tournament is the 105th edition. For a team like Minnesota United, it’s one of just three trophies available, along with MLS Cup (for the playoff champions) and the Supporters’ Shield (for the regular season league winners). And of those three trophies, only one of them feels winnable this year for the Loons – the oldest one of all.

The team begins its U.S. Open Cup season tonight, with a game at second-division FC Cincinnati. Allow me to plead with the United coaches and staff: please, please, take this competition seriously. Not like last year, when head coach Adrian Heath put out what was effectively a reserve team, one that got slaughtered 4-0 by Sporting Kansas City. Give fans a chance at a trophy run – and a chance to add to Minnesota’s U.S. Open Cup memories, which are among my favorite Minnesota soccer memories.

Some of the highest, and the lowest, moments in the franchise’s history came in the U.S. Open Cup, especially during the pre-2016 era when Minnesota was in the second tier of American soccer. A short recap of the team’s Open Cup history, for the uninitiated:

  • 2004:  Minnesota (back then, they were called the Thunder) hosted the L.A. Galaxy at the Metrodome, and beat them 2-0.
  • 2005: Minnesota’s greatest U.S. Open Cup year. The Thunder hosted, and beat, Real Salt Lake 6-4 in the fourth round. In the fifth round, Melvin Tarley scored all four goals in a 4-1 thrashing of Colorado. In the quarterfinals, the Thunder beat Kansas City 3-1 on the road. Three games, three MLS teams, three wins – one of the greatest runs by a lower-division team in the modern era of the Cup. The Thunder lost to the Galaxy in the semifinals, but by then their reputation as giant-killers was cemented.
  • 2009: Played Kansas City at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Trailing 2-0 after 20 minutes, the Thunder evened things up with a pair of (deserved) penalties, the second in the 83rd minute. The game went to extra time, where Kansas City took a 3-2 lead. With four minutes to go in extra time, though, Tarley – who was something of a Cup specialist – scored to even the game. Kansas City won the shootout 4-2, but it still was one of the most exciting nights in Minnesota’s history.
  • 2012: Minnesota was drawn to host Real Salt Lake in the fourth round, but sold the hosting rights to RSL – and then went into Salt Lake and came out with a 3-1 win, remembered now as the “Take The Money And Run” game.  Along with the team’s 2011 title, this win was one of the high points of that era, when the team was owned by the NASL and was searching for a buyer, a team that nobody wanted.
  • 2016: Minnesota hosted Kansas City, in the Loons’ last second-division season. Thanks to the U.S. Open Cup, something of a rivalry had developed between Minnesota and Sporting KC – including an altercation in a preseason friendly. Not surprisingly, there were near-fights all over the field in this game. Christian Ramirez scored from the penalty spot late in regulation, forcing extra time, but Kansas City walked out with a 2-1 win at the end of extra time.

And so, on to Cincinnati – which has assumed Minnesota’s former role as MLS giant killers. Cincy beat Columbus and Chicago last year, before losing in the semifinals to New York, in extra time. Cincinnati was eager to host this game. Its players will be looking to prove themselves against MLS competition, a year before the team joins the big leagues.

It would be a shame, for Loons fans, if they succeed. The U.S. Open Cup is the team’s best chance of a trophy. Even if they don’t make it that far, the Cup is capable of providing memories for years. Let them be positive memories, like 2004 or 2005 or 2012. Don’t let this be another wasted Cup.





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