Tomorrow, Minnesota United will kick off its U.S. Open Cup campaign for the first time as an MLS club. Heading into the competition, it carries a legacy that ties together multiple Minnesota clubs across different eras, all of which went in search of a title and a trip to the CONCACAF Champions League.
Minnesota’s professional soccer history dates back to the founding of the Minnesota Kicks in 1976, but the state’s Open Cup lineage starts a little later. The original NASL declined to compete in the Cup for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Some claim it was a cost issue, while others say teams didn’t want to risk injuring players. One of the more popular theories is that the league was concerned about how possible losses to amateur teams would affect perception of the fledgling league. Because of this decision, neither the Kicks nor the Strikers after them had a chance to get their names on the Cup.
Instead, the journey begins with the Minnesota Thunder in 1995. After four years as a wildly successful amateur team, the Thunder turned pro in 1994 and made its first attempt at qualifying for the Open Cup in 1995. The team’s journey back then was very different than what teams go through today.
At the beginning of the modern era in 1995 and through 2011, each level of the American soccer pyramid had just eight qualifying spots. Each league had its own process to determine which teams would compete in the Cup the following year.
Despite great finishes in league play for four years, Minnesota was not able to qualify for the Cup until 1999. That year, their first attempt at Open Cup glory fizzled when they were toppled 2-1 by the Michigan Bucks. They made up for the performance by winning the league title later that season. They got off to a soaring start the following year with a 7-0 win in the opening round before taking on its first MLS opponent, the Dallas Burn, who sent the Thunder home with a 2-0 loss.
This was the start of a pattern for the team who, after missing the Cup in 2001, consistently beat amateur clubs in the opening rounds before hitting a wall against MLS clubs further down the line. The Thunder finally broke the cycle in 2004. After a nerve-wracking sudden death win in its opening match, Minnesota was set to face LA Galaxy. The Galaxy had eliminated Minnesota just two years before, crushing them 4-0 in Blaine. Minnesota got on the board early with a strike from Chris Brunt in the 21st minute, then held off the visitors for its first win against an MLS club in front of over 5,000 fans at the Metrodome. The Thunder nearly claimed another win off an MLS team in the next round against the San Jose Earthquakes, coming back in the final 15 minutes to force overtime and eventually a shootout. But the Quakes managed to edge out the Thunder 5-4 on penalties. For Minnesota, it was not so much a crushing defeat as a motivator for next year. The match was a warning to MLS clubs, and a precursor to one of the greatest lower-division performances in the modern era.
The 2005 campaign began much as it did in previous years, with Minnesota beating an amateur club and getting ready to welcome some MLS competition. The Thunder, under the guidance of Buzz Lagos, drew expansion side Real Salt Lake for the third round, and the sides prepared for a battle at James Griffin Stadium in Saint Paul. The match turned into a slugfest as the teams traded goals for 90 minutes, with now–Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis getting a hat trick and current Loons’ sideline reporter Jamie Watson rounding out the scoring for RSL. Melvin Tarley’s brace and a Johnny Menyongar strike answered back, with a last-minute Aaron Paye goal to level the score. Minnesota put the game away in extra time with a pair of goals to send the team on to the next round.
The Colorado Rapids made the trip to Minnesota for the fourth round and this time it wasn’t even close. A four-goal performance by Tarley crushed the Rapids and kept the Thunder’s hopes alive. Tarley’s performance would eventually earn him a share of the Golden Boot that year, and got him a contract with RSL shortly after the match. Minnesota hit the road for the quarterfinals, visiting the Kansas City Wizards in what was to be the beginning of a long-standing rivalry. Several Thunder players had been on Kansas City’s roster during their careers, and played with a chip on their shoulder. Minnesota commanded the match, burying three before the Wizards could answer, and moved on to the semifinals with another confident win.
LA Galaxy, hungry for revenge after being bounced by the Thunder last year, hosted the semifinal matchup. Minnesota came out swinging and looked like it would be headed to the final with another strong performance. However, missed chances early on allowed LA to take a two-goal lead into the half, courtesy of Landon Donovan and Hercules Gomez. The Galaxy got their revenge with a confident 5-2 win, and eventually claimed the Open Cup that year. Following the storied campaign, Lagos retired as coach after 16 years at the helm.
Try as they might, the team could never repeat that magical season. The club was bounced in the early rounds of the Open Cup for the remainder of its existence as an organization, making it to a match against an MLS side only in the team’s final season in 2009, when it once again met the Wizards. A 2-2 finish after 90 minutes set up a dramatic extra time, with Kansas City scoring in first half stoppage and the Thunder answering back with a goal from Tarley in the 117th minute. Sadly, it was not to be, as the Wizards put up a perfect shootout performance to beat the Thunder 4-2.
After an eventful year off the pitch, it would be NSC Minnesota Stars’ turn to carry the torch for the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 2010. Like the Thunder before them, the Stars endured a rough start in their first Open Cup campaign with a second-round exit at the hands of league opponent AC St. Louis. The Stars would not compete the following year when its new league, the reformed NASL, failed to get provisional sanctioning, thus banning the league’s clubs from participating in the Cup.
The wait was worth it for the Stars, whose 2-0 road win over the Des Moines Menace led to a match against RSL. Though the Stars won hosting rights, it later sold them to support the club through ongoing financial trouble. An early goal from Kevin Venegas spurred the “Team that Nobody Wanted” on to an eventual 3-1 win over RSL. Reaching the Fourth Round, the Stars headed West to take on the San Jose Earthquakes. A cagey match ensued, with neither side wanting to make a mistake that could cost them. It took 85 minutes for the Quakes, who specialized in late goals that year, to break through with the eventual winner.
Following an offseason of uncertainty, the club found an owner and was renamed Minnesota United FC. It was a rebuilding year in many respects for the club, a fact that was reflected in an early exit from the Open Cup at the hands of Des Moines. Minnesota redeemed itself the following year against the Menace, setting up a trip to Sporting Kansas City. The Loons were dangerous in the opening half, threatening the SKC goal from all directions and standing tall on defense. A red card in the second half sparked some controversy and left Minnesota with 10 men, allowing the home side to score two goals and claim the result.
It would be two years before the clubs would meet again, with Minnesota getting bounced by USL side Saint Louis FC in 2015. This time, it was SKC that made the trip north. There was no love lost between the teams after their contentious recent encounters and scuffles flared up across the pitch. A late penalty conversion from Christian Ramirez forced extra time at NSC Stadium. The breakthrough came in the second half of extra time, with a Diego Rubio strike that would send Sporting KC on to the Round of 16.
Now, the quest for Open Cup glory begins in a new era, with an old foe. The Loons start the next chapter in a storied history on Wednesday night against Sporting Kansas City at 7:30 p.m. CT from Children’s Mercy Park. Watch the match on YouTube and MNUFC.COM.
Minnesota Year-by-Year USOC Results
|1999||Thunder||Second Round||0 - 1 - 0||1||2|
|2000||Thunder||Third Round||1 - 1 - 0||7||2|
|2001||Thunder||Did Not Qualify|
|2002||Thunder||Third Round||1 - 1 - 0||6||5|
|2003||Thunder||Third Round||0 - 1 - 0||0||1|
|2004||Thunder||Quarterfinals||2 - 0 - 1||5||3|
|2005||Thunder||Semifinal||3 - 1 - 0||15||11|
|2006||Thunder||Second Round||0 - 1 - 0||0||1|
|2007||Thunder||Second Round||1 - 1 - 0||3||3|
|2008||Thunder||Second Round||1 - 1 - 0||4||3|
|2009||Thunder||Third Round||2 - 0 - 1||10||5|
|2010||Stars||Second Round||1 - 1 - 0||4||1|
|2011||Stars||NASL Clubs Banned|
|2012||Stars||Fourth Round||2 - 1 - 0||5||2|
|2013||United||Second Round||0 - 1 - 0||0||1|
|2014||United||Fourth Round||1 - 1 - 0||1||2|
|2015||United||Third Round||0 - 0 - 1||1||1|
|2016||United||Fourth Round||1 - 0 - 1||3||2|