Minnesota United FC dropped its first soccer match of the season last week on the road at previously winless Fort Lauderdale, a setback that players said started with the wrong state of mind.
“We learned that we can’t take a last-place team lightly,” midfielder Miguel Ibarra said. “Everybody is fighting and trying to beat us. I think a lot of our players want that match back, and we’re going to come out this game with a lot of intensity.”
Gearing up for the stretch of games ahead should not be a problem.
Minnesota plays host to defending North American Soccer League champion Tampa Bay at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome. It’s the first of two consecutive weekends facing the Rowdies, who rallied to beat Minnesota in the finals last season.
For added incentive, United begins play in the 100th annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against Des Moines at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Minnesota’s Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.
The game was originally scheduled at the much larger stadium at the National Sports Center in Blaine but moved because of concerns about field conditions there after the prolonged cold and snow this spring.
If favored United FC wins, it would advance to the second round May 28 to play Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. That would make four extra meaningful games in an 11-day span.
“It’ll be tough,” defender Justin Davis said. “We can’t really rest any of the starters going into the Open Cup, especially playing Tampa. But our team is really deep, so maybe you’ll see guys get some minutes and step up.”
Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Edmonton are tied for second place in the standings, all with eight points. Beating Tampa Bay also would allow United FC players to get the better of former Minnesota teammates Andres Arango, Devin Del Do, Luke Mulholland and Amani Walker. Mulholland leads the Rowdies with three goals.
Midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan, in his first season with United FC, said his teammates’ added desire to beat Tampa Bay is palpable.
“People don’t forget, especially athletes,” said Pitchkolan, adding that while a regular-season victory would not avenge a finals loss, it would “prove a point.”
Minnesota also hopes to turn heads once again in the Open Cup, the nation’s oldest ongoing soccer tournament. All United States Soccer Federation-affiliated teams, from amateur adults clubs to MLS teams, are eligible to play.
Last season, Minnesota fared well against two MLS teams, upsetting Real Salt Lake 3-1 and playing San Jose tough in a 1-0 loss.
“For the lower-level teams, it’s a huge opportunity to play MLS teams,” said Pitchkolan, who has seen those games from both sides.
His former MLS team, Dallas FC, took runner-up in the tournament in 2005 and ’07 and suffered a loss in 2008 to Charleston, a team playing at a level comparable to the current NASL. Playing for San Antonio last season, Pitchkolan and his teammates upset Houston of the MLS.
Davis, invited to work out with Real Salt Lake in the offseason, said players remembered the Open Cup loss.
“It was good for our confidence, and it was good to show the other leagues that the NASL can compete with MLS teams,” Davis said. “There are some bragging rights. It’s a big tournament and you want to show well.”
For young, talented players such as Davis and Ibarra, the Open Cup is a great opportunity to showcase themselves on a larger stage.
“Miguel would be a good example of that,” Davis said. “He did really well against San Jose and I think they kept an eye on him the rest of the season.”
Said Ibarra: “I’m happy to be here in Minnesota with this team. I think we are good enough to beat MLS teams. But it’s definitely good that I can show that I am a good player with a lot of ability.”