In 2005, the Minnesota Thunder were U.S. Open Cup Giant Killers and it was no fluke either.
Led by long-time coach and founder Buzz Lagos, the Thunder defeated three MLS teams on their 2005 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run. After narrowly scraping by the Chicago Fire PDL team 2-1 thanks to an 89th minute Fire own goal, the Thunder turned up the burners and outscored their next three MLS opponents 11-6.
“Most people will focus on their league play and just take the tournament in stride. After our successful 2004 Open Cup tournament, we just made the decision to put our best foot forward for the 2005 Open Cup,” said Lagos who coached the Thunder for 16 years and planned on retiring after the 2005 season.
The former Thunder coach said, with good attendance figures from their 2004 Open Cup matches, he and team president Jim Froslid made the decision to try to host as many 2005 US Open Cup matches as possible.
Thunder head coach Buzz Lagos congratulates forward Melvin Tarley for his four-goal performance against the Colorado Rapids
in the 2005 U.S. Open Cup Round of 16.
The 2004 competition saw his team defeat the LA Galaxy 1-0 at home in the now demolished Metrodome. A match that Lagos recalls clearly as Sigi Schmid’s last game as the Galaxy’s coach. The victory against LA brought their next opponent the San Jose Earthquakes. Again Minnesota hosted, but this time at James Griffin Stadium – a narrow high school stadium with field turf where the team played several seasons. The club packed the stadium and played to an exciting 2-2 overtime draw that saw the Thunder defeated in penalty kicks 5-4.
“James Griffin Stadium was an absolute advantage for our team,” said Kevin Friedland who spent 10 seasons playing for Minnesota, the last three as a player/assistant coach. “The turf wasn’t bad for that time, but the field itself was narrow as hell. It had (American) football lines and tape laid down for sidelines. It was so narrow we played a 3-5-2 back then.”
Friedland said the locker rooms were also awful with no ventilation and getting hot water for a shower was rare. “Between the field and the locker rooms, it was tough for opponents to come here and get up for playing us.”
Prioritization and home field advantage wasn’t the only factor driving the Thunder to do well in the tournament. Friedland, a Kansas City Wizards draftee in 2003, was joined by the likes of Jay Alberts, Chris Brunt and Jeff Matteo – guys that had some MLS experience and plenty to prove.
“We all definitely carried a little bit of a chip on our shoulders,” said Friedland. “At that time, MLS rosters were smaller and there were a lot less teams. It’s arguable whether we could have made the roster with today’s rules and additional teams, but I think so. But we all went from being bench players to starters playing a lot of games. And that was the experience we all needed."
Joe Warren was the starting ‘keeper for the Thunder in both 2004 and 2005. “I thought we had such a good team in 2005,” said Warren. “I was amazed at how well we did in the Open Cup compared to the regular season. I remember thinking back that a lot of the starters on that team had shots at MLS. Obviously, when you play an MLS team you get amped up and play well against them. But that team stepped it up for the big time for the Open Cup. I think everyone was trying to prove that they were just as good as the players on MLS teams.”
In fact, the Thunder’s 2005 USL season was rather poor. They finished well out of the playoffs in 10th place with a 7-11-10 record and 37 goals. Yet they scored 17 goals in five Open Cup matches.
On July 13, the Thunder hosted Real Salt Lake at James Griffin in a wild goal fest, defeating the MLS newbies 6-4. Jason Kreis picked up a hat trick around a Jamie Watson goal. But Melvin Tarley scored two for Minnesota. Johnny Menyongar also scored for the Thunder as did Aaron Paye who picked up an 89th minute equalizer. Minnesota scored two more in overtime, the game winner from Matt Schmidt in the 96th and an insurance goal by Paye in 107th.
2005 MLS expansion side Real Salt Lake was the Minnesota Thunder's first higher division victim in their run to the 2005 U.S. Open Cup Semifinals.
Long time soccer blogger and Minnesota soccer fan Bruce McGuire reflected on that game recently. “Real Salt Lake had allowed five goals to Chivas USA the previous weekend and Thunder fans chanted: "Chivas scored 5. We scored 6!" Even the Salt Lake newspapers made mention of that one.”
Into the Round of 16, up next for Minnesota were the Colorado Rapids on August 3, which Minnesota again hosted and dominated with a 4-1 win. All four goals were scored by Melvin Tarley. “We played well but worked really hard to get the result against Real Salt Lake. So when we started scoring goals so easily again, the Rapids were sort of shocked,” said Lagos. “It was a walk in the park.”
The four goal performance by Tarley and six total in the competition, tied him for the tournament’s Golden Boot award in 2005. It also prompted RSL to make a move for the Liberian international, who left the Thunder immediately on a transfer.
Melvin Tarley's excellent play in the 2005 U.S. Open Cup earned a share of the tournament's Golden Boot award and a MLS shot with Real Salt Lake.
The Kansas City Wizards were the next team to fall; this time by a score of 3-1 in another dominant performance by the Thunder in the Quarterfinals. “They had gone to the MLS Cup Final in 2004 and still had a good team in 2005,” recalls Lagos. He explained that there was a bidding process for Open Cup games at that time and KC wanted the match and won the bid. They hosted Minnesota at Julian Field, a small college stadium.
“It was a very competitive match,” recalls Lagos. “We had three players, Brunt, Alberts and Friedland who had all been part of the Kansas City program just a year or two before that and again all had something to prove. And Johnny Menyongar really rose to the occasion on that night as well. He really came to play.”
That he did. Menyongar also known as the “Tiny Ticket”, no longer had target man Tarley by his side. Yet he scored two goals either side of a Wizards own goal with Ryan Pore scoring the lone goal for Kansas City. By the time Pore scored in the 71st minute the Thunder were well in control of the match. Former U.S. international Preki also featured in the game for Kansas City and Lagos recalled telling his players, whatever they did, to stay out in front of his left foot.
In the absence of star striker Melvin Tarly, Minnesota's Johnny 'Tiny Ticket' Menyongar stepped up with two goals
to fire the Thunder past reigning Open Cup champions Kansas City in the 2005 edition of the tournament.
The Thunder had finished their regular season, so their Semifinal match against the Galaxy was the only thing on their mind. Like Kansas City, Los Angeles outbid Minnesota for the match and hosted at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California. There was no doubt the Galaxy were looking for revenge for being dumped out of the tournament early by the Thunder in 2004. Seemingly bolstered when Real Salt Lake allowed Tarley to be loaned back to Minnesota for the match, the Thunder seemed to surprise the Galaxy from the opening whistle and were soon taking their chances at the LA goal. In the ninth minute there was a foul in the box. Tarley stepped up but missed his spot kick.
“If we scored the penalty it’s a whole different game,” lamented Lagos.
Minnesota continued to battle until Landon Donovan struck just before the half hour. Then right before the half, Herculez Gomez made it 2-0. With the final seconds of the first half counting down, the Thunder’s Chris Brunt took a shot that hit the cross bar, bounced downward and then bounced out of the goal.
“Our whole team was pleading to the referee for that goal,” said Warren. “To me that could have been a totally different game if we could have gone into half 2-1.”
The Thunder did answer with a goal early in the second half but the star studded Galaxy lineup took it up another notch and soundly defeated the Thunder 5-2, ending Minnesota’s remarkable 2005 U.S. Open Cup run.
“We became giant killers that season,” Friedland reflected. “Outside of the Rochester Rhinos in ‘99, no lower division team had really made a dent in that many MLS teams.”
The loss also finished a stellar career for Lagos who did retire after the game. His career coaching record with the Thunder was 324-148-46 and he led his teams to four A-league Championship matches: 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2003. He won the 1999 championship and carried with him into retirement one very satisfying U.S. Open Cup run.