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Jon Marthaler writes about the Minnesota United and sport of soccer.

SoccerCentric: The US Open Cup needs fewer repeats - and more magic

Wednesday night, Minnesota United FC begins their US Open Cup campaign for this year. For the un-initiated, the US Open Cup is the open knockout competition for all US-based clubs; the preliminary round took place in late April, with only amateur teams, and gradually bigger and bigger teams have entered the competition. United, in the second division, plays their first game in the third round; St. Louis FC, their opponent, had to win a second-round matchup with the fourth-division Des Moines Menace to advance.

The coin flip again went against Minnesota, and they’ll be traveling to St. Louis for Wednesday’s game. And if they can win that, their reward is a trip to Sporting Kansas City on June 16. Which would be a repeat of last year, when United won away in Des Moines, earning a trip to Kansas City for the fourth round. And also a repeat of the previous year, when United lost at home against Des Moines – but if they had won, they would have made the journey to Kansas City for the fourth round.

Coin flip luck is one thing, but the US Open Cup’s emphasis on geographic scheduling is another. Minnesota fans guessed their team’s schedule as soon as the tournament’s format was announced – Des Moines, St. Louis, or (maybe) Madison in the third round, then Kansas City in the fourth round. The “magic of the cup” tends to disappear when you’ve seen the same trick over and over and over again. The US Open Cup should be the most widely exciting competition in American soccer, one that unites fans across the country – not the same thing, over and over again, every year.

US Soccer’s determination to pit teams against each other geographically makes some sense in earlier rounds; most of the amateur and semi-pro teams, from the fourth-division PDL on down, don’t have the financial wherewithal to be making repeated cross-country trips for the US Open Cup. Geographic scheduling means that more teams can enter the tournament, and that’s a good thing.

Once the tournament gets into the third or fourth round, though, I wonder whether geographic scheduling is even necessary, from a cost perspective. MLS, NASL, and USL teams should all be able to bear the cost of entering the tournament. Most lower-division fans, including Minnesota’s, get excited about the chance to enter a tournament that includes the entire soccer country, including MLS. At the top, some MLS teams take the competition less than seriously, then turn around and treat it as a financial burden, which is disingenuous; Kansas City, which worked hard to sell their game against Minnesota, drew more than 17,000 fans for last year’s game. This tournament should be a money-maker, not a money-sucker. If it’s done right, it can work for everyone.

United play-by-play announcer Chris Lidholm came up with a partial solution that US Soccer needs to take a hard look at. His idea is to eliminate the repeats at the fourth-round stage – to change it so that we don’t see a replay of the same MLS-vs-lower-division match every year. Effectively, if Minnesota played at Kansas City in 2014, make it so that Minnesota can’t be drawn against Kansas City in 2015, removing the possibility of having the same match over and over and over.

There could still be a geographic component; repeated Kansas City trips might be replaced with games against Chicago, or Colorado. It wouldn’t have been difficult to swap games this year – in that scenario, the Minnesota/St. Louis winner would have played Chicago, and the Indy/Louisville City winner would have played Kansas City. None of that seems like it’s a problem.

As American soccer develops, we shall hopefully see the US Open Cup transition to an entirely open competition, and Minnesota drawn against whoever, from across the country – Pittsburgh or Arizona, Ventura County or Fort Lauderdale. But Lidholm’s suggestion will at least eliminate the year-to-year sameness. And it would certainly help the future Des Moines, Madison, and St. Louis fans, stuck with repeated games against Minnesota’s new MLS side.

For much, much more on United in the US Open Cup, check out Northern Pitch.

SoccerCentric: United takes unusual road to victory

Game recap here.

It was Juliano that set the tone for Minnesota - not with a well-placed pass or incisive run, but a moment in his own half of the field. United came out in the 4-2-3-1 formation that we all learned to love last season, with Pablo Campos up front, JC Banks and Miguel Ibarra on the wings, and Kalif Alhassan ahead of Juliano and Aaron Pitchkolan in the middle of the field. Jacksonville, meanwhile, came out in what appeared to be a 3-7-0; with no center back and no clear forward, the Armada appeared set on blockading the center of the field.

And so Juliano picked up a loose ball, and turned, and was met with four Armada attackers. Every United player was left standing and waiting for a pass that never came, because Vicentini didn't even have time to take a touch; he just went down under the onslaught, like a dad who's gone too far into the ocean in search of an excellent beach vacation photo of his family, and has failed to notice a wave that's now carrying his hat and camera off to points unknown.

It led to the first good chance of the game, and a good save from Sammy Ndjock, but the tone was set. From there, it was time for United to defend, and look to counter. "We wanted to allow them to pass a little bit because they like to do that," said Manny Lagos. So United would sit back, while Jacksonville passed and passed through the midfield, looking for some small opening. Fullback, passes to center, passes to et al; it was that kind of first half. Alhassan and Banks sat back, defensive responsibilities on their mind; half the time it fell to Pitchkolan to pressure the Armada back line and goalkeeper. For much of the game, the big defensive midfielder appeared to be nothing so much as a second striker.

The counter-attack strategy worked, in a sense. ""They have a lot of players who know how to play with the ball, so if you press high, you open space for them to come at us," said Campos. "It was strategic the way we played today." And it's true that United opened no space for Armada to exploit. It's also true, though, that Campos is not a natural at counter-attacking; he's at his best as a target, not as someone trying to stretch the defense. Even in the second half, when he created United's third goal with an excellent pass to Ibarra, he bulldozed a defender in order to get the pass in the first place.

Apart from Ibarra's goal, it's hard to say that any of the goals made any particular sense. A quick recap:

1. United penalty after what appeared to be a rather blatant Alhassan dive.
2. Tiago Calvano scoring from a corner after a Jacksonville defender miskicked the ball directly to him on the goal line.
3. An Armada goal that seemingly bounced off every player on the field, and ended up being scored by Pascal Millien, off NDjock's hand, and then through the waiting hands of Kevin Venegas, who tried to catch it and throw it out of the net.
4. A Jemal Johnson free kick from 35 yards that went directly through NDjock's hands, which makes me wonder if we'll see Mitch Hildebrandt for both games next week. "It was a pretty soft one to give up and I think he’d put his hand up and say that too," said Lagos of NDjock.

I mean, it's exciting - five goals in a half-hour, after a sleepy first 45 minutes, was certainly a needed bit of entertainment - but it's hard to take any larger lessons from any of that. United got the three goals, but not because they were dominant; they coughed up a pair of two-goal leads, but not because of a total team breakdown. Things just... happened.

Still, three in a row for Minnesota. And that's not nothing. They've moved from tenth to second in the NASL table in a matter of three weeks. They're six points behind New York, but actually still control their own destiny; they have a game in hand on the Cosmos, and host them next week, so two more wins in the next two weeks and the two teams would be level on points. (Though not on goal differential; the Cosmos currently are six goals ahead, so beating New York by three or four goals would be quite helpful.)

And on to St. Louis

Before that New York game, though, United have the challenge of a third-round road trip in the US Open Cup. They're off to St. Louis FC of the USL on Wednesday, trying to earn yet another fourth-round trip to Kansas City. (Each of the last three years, United's prize for beating a lower-league team has been a trip to Sporting Park. All very diverting, but I'm getting reasonably sick of the geographic US Open scheduling - and, apparently, Minnesota's coin-flip luck.)

Lagos gave one of the best coach-speak answers I've ever heard, when asked whether Wednesday against St. Louis or Saturday against New York was more important. "They’re equally important in their own way," he said.

For right now, though, the coach said he's focused on the next game, in St. Louis He's planning to get a few new guys into the lineup. Said the coach, "We have some guys that haven’t been able to show what they can do, who are going to be able to get on the field and try get us the result Wednesday."

I would expect Christian Ramirez to get the start; he came on as a sub for Pablo Campos, late in the second half. Jonny Steele and Greg Jordan also came on as subs, and might therefore be front-line candidates to start on Wednesday.

United media relations director Eric Durkee told me that a web broadcast of the game from St. Louis is possible, but not certain. There are a few hoops to jump through, I'm told. If nothing else, you can probably expect regular Periscope videos.

For more coverage of United's win against Jacksonville, check out Northern Pitch.

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