If anyone, including the Minnesota Thunder, think the Kansas City Wizards are ripe for an upset in Wednesday night's Open Cup quarterfinal match at Park University with all the trials and tribulations currently facing the defending champion, they could be right.
Considering the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder might indeed be licking their chops knowing they have already defeated two MLS clubs in Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids, it also adds to the possibility.
But even though the Wizards have had a busy game schedule thus far in August, their offensive catalyst has a rib contusion that might keep him out, and two of their starting defenders have traveled to Spain to play against Real Madrid, there will be plenty others on the field at Park University who have no intention of ceding the crown quietly.
Any chance of taking a lower division side was likely dealt with in the fourth round, when it was a 6-1 shellacking of the PDL's Des Moines Menace that got the Wizards here. In addition, the Wizards have two intimate insights into the Minnesota camp in the persons of center back Dustin Branan and likely starting right back Brian Roberts. Both played with the Thunder under coach Buzz Lagos last season.
"If we take them too lightly, it will come back to bite us. When I was there, we beat Los Angeles and took San Jose to the brink [in the Open Cup last year]. We are not looking past them," said Roberts.
After being drafted by the Minnesota in the first round of the draft in December 2003, Roberts was signed by the Wizards as a developmental player in June, but remained on loan to Minnesota through September where he appeared in 16 games for the Thunder in 2004 and recorded one assist.
The 22-year-old Yale graduate knows Thunder midfielder Jay Alberts (a fellow Yale man), midfielder Chris Brunt and defender Kevin Friedland well, as do the Wizards as each were drafted by or spent time with the MLS club.
They compose much of the core of a potential-laden opponent. And when combined with two Liberian internationals up front in Melvin Tarley and Johnny Menyongar, the Thunder can make teams nervous. The Rapids wobbled to a 4-1 defeat in the round-of-16 -- all four goals were scored by Tarley.
"Johnny Menyongar is a smaller guy, but he has great feet," said Roberts of the Thunder's leading goal scorer with eight, followed by Tarley who has banged in seven. "Melvin Tarley is a bigger body who has a nose for the goal. Both can finish if they get the chance, so we'll keep their opportunities down to as little as possible."
"I don't care who you are playing against, you score four goals, you're doing something right," said Wizards assistant coach Brian Bliss. "And you have guys like Brunt who are pretty darn athletic and are competitive as all get out. Anybody's a good team in a one game situation, and they have the players that could get it done. There's no doubt. But, at the same time, we need to play our game."
The Wizards have had their game every night for the last five matches in all competitions, winning each and outscoring their opponents 18-6.
The igniting power of Josh Wolff might be missed though as he was substituted at halftime of Kansas City's match against Chicago last Friday. However, goal scorers Scott Sealy and Jack Jewsbury and the rest of the Wizards didn't miss a beat, going on to a 3-0 victory.
And because of ambitious and talented players like Roberts and Jewsbury who are looking to earn more time, the Wizards should be able to survive the absences of center back Jimmy Conrad and left back Jose Burciaga Jr.
"I think I've done well with my opportunities. I can play better. I've stepped in and helped the team, and we've gotten some pretty good results recently. I've contributed to that," Roberts said. "Each time I play I get better."
Another likely addition to the lineup is backup goalkeeper Will Hesmer, who Bliss said is a probable starter. Hesmer went the full 90 minutes against the Menace back on Aug. 3.
"It was very exciting [getting my first minutes with the first team.] I've been waiting a long time to do it, and it felt good to finally get in there," said Hesmer, who spent last season as the third goalkeeper behind veterans Tony Meola and Bo Oshoniyi.
So despite the tight schedule and the missing players, ambition and the desire of all players to sharpen are driving the Wizards.
"We're looking at it from an aspect of we have 28 guys -- we need these guys to pull some weight now that we haven't had to in the past. It's [their] chance to go in there and do something for the team," said Bliss.
And even though the Thunder may be further motivated to give Lagos, who earlier this month announced he was stepping down from his duties at the end of the season, a celebratory sendoff by reaching further into the Open Cup, the Wizards are on the hunt themselves.
"We have guys who are ready to step in and eager to step in and do the job," said Oshoniyi. "We're excited for defending our title and getting after them."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.