During the preseason, I talked to a number of Minnesota United players who had been in training camp with Major League Soccer teams, or had previously played for MLS teams, or just had the goal of getting to that level. And I was struck that all of them had a consistent message: we love playing MLS teams in the US Open Cup, because it means we have a chance to show them what they're missing.
Those games against MLS teams are, for some of the players, bigger than almost any other game of the year. The team had one lined up next Tuesday night, a trip to Kansas City - and all they had to do was beat Des Moines, a team made up of college players.
United's 1-0 loss is, once again, proof that they can take nothing for granted.
Head coach Manny Lagos was as downcast as I've ever seen him, after the game. "It’s a time for me to apologize to the fans, to the owners, and to the people of Minnesota that support us," he said. "This is a low I think the team hasn’t felt in years... The reality is that we can’t get much lower than what happened today. If we can’t wake up tomorrow and assess some stuff about what needs to be done, that’s an issue."
Team president Nick Rogers also apologized to fans via Twitter, writing "To #MNUFC fans: I apologize & am embarrassed for what you saw tonight. To @MenaceSoccer: thanks for showing us how much work we have ahead."
I asked Lagos what had gone wrong, and he didn't have a lot of answers. "The honest truth is it’s a little bit of everything," he said. "I think right now it's a lack of belief in themselves, and it starts with putting yourself out there, giving yourself the energy and belief to do well. It’s disheartening for sure."
"I certainly think we’re not doing the stuff we need to do to win games, and certainly it doesn’t help when we continue to complicate things."
Give some credit to Des Moines - they played exactly the type of game they needed to play. The Menace defended deep the entire game, with eight or nine players getting behind the ball at almost all times. Their hope was to get a counter-attack, or a set piece, that would allow them to squeak out the winning goal - and the plan worked to perfection.
Brandon Fricke, who scored the winner for Des Moines, knew that a set piece was the best chance for the away team. " I think we put them under a lot of pressure this game from set pieces," he said. "It was just a typical set play for us.... I made a run hard to the near post. It was great service, I've got to give it all up for the service. Luckily I got my head on it."
"When the ball was in the air, [I was thinking] just get good contact and put it on frame, really. Hit the net, and I started celebrating."
Fricke was understandably over the moon, as was the remainder of the Menace locker room, which could best be described as "jubilant." Said Fricke, "That’s definitely the biggest goal of my career so far. It’s awesome. I’m looking forward to moving on to Kansas City."
At least Minnesota wasn't alone. San Antonio lost to FC Tucson, also a PDL team, on penalties, and Fort Lauderdale needed a shootout to get by the Laredo Heat. But Fort Lauderdale gets a home game against FC Dallas now. Atlanta won, and gets a trip to Real Salt Lake. Tampa Bay gets to host Seattle. And Carolina gets the biggest prize of all, a home game against the LA Galaxy, the MLS champions.
As for Minnesota, that's three straight losses for United now - one to the league's last-place team, one at home in a game they controlled, and one to a fourth-division amateur side.
It's safe to say that, right now, it seems like things can't get a lot worse for Minnesota.