Beating the defending Major League Soccer champions Wednesday night is more than a matter of pride for Minnesota United.
The team is off to its best start in recent years, having secured the North American Soccer League spring season championship to cement a spot in the fall playoffs.
But a victory against Sporting Kansas City in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is important for momentum as United heads into a unique summer.
United will play host to two international opponents on the heels of the World Cup. It’s also enmeshed in growing talk of bringing MLS soccer to the Twin Cities, a move that would elevate the caliber of play amid burgeoning local interest in the sport.
There’s money involved, too. The Open Cup, in its 111th year, offers $15,000 to the furthest-advancing NASL team. The overall champion receives $250,000 and a berth in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League, consisting of North and South American and Caribbean teams.
“There’s added intensity for these games now,” United coach Manny Lagos said. “More than there ever has been. Soccer has been around a long time but professional teams are really getting a foothold now. So there is this sprint to figure out which teams are creating the early legacies of soccer. That means trophies.”
Minnesota is one of six NASL teams left. Three of those teams — Carolina, Indy Eleven and New York — upset MLS teams last weekend.
“We can play head-to-head with anyone,” United forward Christian Ramirez said.
Confidence is not an issue for the NASL rookie of late. He earned the league’s Player of the Month honors for the combined months of May and June after spearheading Minnesota’s offense down the stretch.
Calls came in from various well-wishers. MLS veteran Cobi Jones, a commentator and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, “friended” Ramirez on Facebook.
A United victory means the team moves to the fifth round June 24-25. In the past, a strong showing from a young player such as Ramirez hopefully triggered a move up to MLS. Lagos stopped short of calling this game an audition.
“I would have agreed with that a couple of years ago,” Lagos said. “But we have an ownership group that rewards guys who do well. It’s important to show what you can do but we’ve got an ownership group that’s committed to putting a great product on the field.”
Ramirez said he “may have something in my contract” allowing for performance bonuses. Team president Nick Rogers would not comment on specifics but said, “We’re not a development league. We want to win championships.”
Minnesota’s best run in the Open Cup was in 2005, when the then-Thunder upset three MLS teams (Real Salt Lake, Colorado and Kansas City) and reached the semifinals.
United captain Aaron Pitchkolan, who played for FC Dallas in 2005, said players’ interests in the Open Cup varied. Not so today, Lagos said, with a CONCACAF berth on the line.
In addition, a greater investment by NASL owners has closed the gap between the second-division league and MLS. “There’s a difference but I don’t think the difference is vast,” said Rogers, adding that the talent divide of the two leagues is “closer than Triple A baseball to the major leagues.”
The Twin Cities is seen as a leading contender for an MLS team as the league considers expanding to 24 teams. United owner Bill McGuire is exploring moving his team to that level. There’s also interest from the Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, which has exclusive five-year rights to pursue an MLS team in the new Vikings stadium once it opens in 2016.