ST. PAUL — How MLS clubs approach the U.S. Open Cup can be revealed in their starting lineups.
In their opening fourth-round match in the national tournament June 12 against Sporting Kansas City, the Loons revealed a desire to win by starting top goalkeeper Vito Mannone and premier playmaker Darwin Quintero. But they didn’t put it all on the line, resting banged-up defenders Ike Opara and Brent Kallman.
For a fifth-round game against defending Open Cup champion Houston Dynamo on June 18, they reinserted Opara and top central midfielder Jan Gregus in a 3-2 win.
For Wednesday, July 10’s quarterfinal against lower-level New Mexico United, coach Adrian Heath said he will put a full, first-choice group of 11 starters out at Allianz Field. With this game in mind, Heath used a lineup of mostly backups for a 3-2 win over Montreal in MLS action Saturday.
“The game is littered all over the world with the so-called smaller club beating the bigger club because the bigger club don’t treat them with the respect they deserve,” Heath said Monday. “That’s not going to happen. We are going to put the best team out we can.”
New Mexico, a startup club in the USL Championship division, has already topped two MLS sides on the road to reach this stage. They edged the Colorado Rapids in penalty kicks in the fourth round on June 13 and beat FC Dallas 2-1 in the fifth round on June 19.
New Mexico coach Troy Lesesne said he has seen an extra gear in his players wanting to prove they can hang with MLS competition. “It means a little bit more,” he said.
When Heath coached Orlando City, he welcomed Lesesne to watch a few training sessions on two separate visits. It was open-door access that helped Lesesne form his identity as a coach.
“Watching Adrian go through his attacking pattern play was one of the biggest education points for me,” Lesense said.
Now, Lesense will be tasked with stopping a Loons attack that has scored a staggering 20 goals in their past five games in all competitions. New Mexico won’t be able to counter with Kevaughn Frater, who has scored four Open Cup goals but is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.
The Loons have only lost once in 10 home games this season, but New Mexico is expected to bring about 300 fans, with approximately 180 coming on a chartered flight. That traveling support is more than double the next-highest total at Allianz Field this season, 135 brought by the Seattle Sounders on May 4.
Opara, who won U.S. Open Cups with Kansas City in 2015 and ’17, said success in the tournament boils down to caring.
“If you take it serious, if you want to strive for a trophy, it’s there for the taking,” he said. “I think the mindset of this is it isn’t a gimme game, or this isn’t a game for development for some guys; it’s a chance for us to win something meaningful.”
Minnesota, which hasn’t won a trophy since earning the North American Soccer League spring season championship in 2014, can now see a title on the horizon. An Open Cup championship would also mean a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League and $300,000 in prize money.
The Minnesota/New Mexico winner plays either Los Angeles FC or the Portland Timbers in the semifinals on Aug. 7. Location will be determined in a draw Thursday.
Four Eastern teams are on the other side of the bracket — MLS clubs Atlanta United, Orlando City, New York City and another underdog, USL Championship side St. Louis FC.