The U.S. Open Cup is all about a matchup such as the one that will play out on Wednesday at Park University's Julian Field in North Kansas City, when the defending Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion Kansas City Wizards take on the Des Moines Menace of the Premier Development League (PDL).
The story is ripe with an intriguing introduction of an upstart team of players working together to achieve unprecedented glory that earns them a shot to gain so much more by knocking off one of the big boys, in this case, the biggest boys of all -- the defending champs.
The PDL's Menace became the first amateur team in two years to make it to the fourth round of the Open Cup after their surprising 5-1 triumph against the Atlanta Silverbacks of the United Soccer League's First Division. The victory was preceded by a 3-2 win against another USL First Division club in the Charleston Battery and a penalty kick shootout victory against USL Second Division club Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
This past weekend, the Menace continued their run of success by advancing to the PDL final four after defeating the Michigan Bucks 4-1.
Coach Casey Mann's side, which scored 42 goals and allowed only 16 in the regular season, features a variety of collegiate and amateur players from various backgrounds and origins. The attack begins with two-time PDL MVP midfielder Tomas Boltnar. The 26-year-old Czech Republic native ended the season with 10 goals and 10 assists in 15 matches to lead the side. He is usually complemented by frontrunner Edwin Disang and his 17 points in only 10 contests, but the native of Botswana suffered a broken jaw on Saturday and will be not play Wednesday.
Familiar with the Wizards is Menace goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, a University of Kentucky product who hails from Lenexa, Kan. The 22-year-old posted a 0.97 goals-against average during the regular season with the support of his three-man back line and its leader, Danilo Oliveira from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Before one thinks last year's Open Cup winners and MLS Cup runners-up aren't aware of what ill things could happen on match night, think again.
Some veteran Wizards know first-hand that MLS teams are not immune to defeat by an amateur side as proven by the loss in 2000 to the PDL's Chicago Sockers on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw through 120 minutes -- the year the Wizards won their MLS Cup championship.
In that match, Kansas City coach Bob Gansler did not start veterans such as Preki, Mo Johnston, Tony Meola, Matt McKeon, Chris Henderson, and Chris Klein, but current Wizards players Kerry Zavagnin and Bo Oshoniyi were in the starting XI that night.
"That was a game where their goalkeeper probably played the best game of his life. We out shot them something like 25 to two. It was overwhelming possession on our part," recalled Zavagnin.
"We lost in the shootout [7-6], and it was disheartening to say the least," Oshoniyi said. "It was just one of those games where you let a team stick around, they start getting some confidence, and the next thing you know you're in a dogfight with them."
Added Zavagnin: "It just goes to show that on any given day anybody can beat anybody, and that's what is so special about the Open Cup -- every team has an opportunity to go out there and win and one game and you are out. We're excited every year about it, but last year we really put a lot into it and reaped the rewards of our hard work. We're going to take the same approach into this year."
And Gansler's lineup will reflect that attitude.
"[A first-choice lineup] makes sense to me. It's about winning, so you better put your best guys that you think at that moment," he said. "That's not to say that some guys have crept up the ladder and are going to get a run when they haven't gotten a run for a while, but we want to put the strongest lineup out there that we think of right now."
Coming off the All-Star break, Wizards players may be a little rusty, but Gansler will have his side in shape, physically and mentally, come the whistle.
"We're proud to be the defending champion and we want to be the champion of '05 as well, so it's a must-win," he said. "We've already mentioned to our guys, and they very well know, that every game needs to be won; no one is going to give you anything.
"These guys are on a very confident roll. I know earlier in the year they beat the Minnesota Thunder in a competition and they beat Atlanta in Atlanta, which is a good [USL First Division] team. They've continued to win and feel good about themselves, as they should. So it's someone we need to beat, and it's not someone who is going to be very charitable with us."
Center back Jimmy Conrad has returned from a whirlwind tour with the U.S. national team and the MLS All-Star team, and he knows from his Gold Cup experiences playing against Panama and the like are key to beating a team you are supposed to.
"You can't take them for granted. For Wednesday, we're supposed to beat Des Moines. It's a different kind of pressure, but we need to have the right attitude from the get-go and make them work," he said. "That's how we feel about anything, but, at the same time, with these teams, once they get one sniff, their confidence just goes through the roof. We want to make sure we keep their chances to a minimum, keep their confidence down, and get an early goal."
The setting is part of the story as well. It is the first time Parkville's Park University has hosted such an event. Located on a bluff that rises above the Missouri River, the campus's 1,360-seat, well-kept Julian Field usually hosts the Park Pirates for NAIA collegiate contests as well as local high school matches.
On Wednesday it will host the main competition as well as an auxiliary contest as Wizards supporters, highlighted by the energetic fans that inhabit "the Cauldron," will be challenged in a game-long cheering contest by a contingent of roughly 300 that is headed down from Des Moines, Iowa, some 194 miles to the north of Kansas City. Already having engaged in some lively pre-game banter, the two soccer communities will come together to provide a likely raucous atmosphere as they watch when a team who refuses to lose meets a team who will accept nothing but a win.
"[Des Moines] has absolutely everything to gain, so they can play very loose and very confidently and can take any and all risks. It's the underdog role, and I'm sure they relish that. They did extremely well with it. They not only beat Atlanta, they blew them away [5-1]. We have to respect them, and I trust my guys will," said Gansler.
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.