Sandy, UT – There was good news as well as bad for Real Salt Lake as the Utah side entered the Lamar Hunt Open Cup tournament against Minnesota Stars FC. The good news was the fanatical supporters of the Claret and Cobalt set an attendance record for the Open Cup tournament as 17,212 packed Rio Tinto Stadium on a Tuesday night with short notice. Unfortunately for the RSL faithful, that was the only good news of the night.
The bad news of course, was the Minnesota Stars FC of the NASL thoroughly outplayed the MLS side throughout the game and sent the majority of fans in attendance home disappointed after a 3-1 win to advance to the next round of the tournament.
RSL proved that head coach Jason Kreis is serious about the Open Cup tournament, trotting out a lineup that was as close to Kries’ first eleven as possible, with the exceptions being away for national team duty. Every player on the field at the beginning of the match had previous MLS experience, even though some of the players are only in their rookie campaign.
RSL looked sluggish out of the gates however, as Minnesota didn’t seem overly nervous to be playing in front of so large a crowd and applied pressure to the RSL backline as many fans were still finding their seats.
The visitors took control of the match in the fourth minute as a free kick into RSL’s box got lose and landed at the feet of Minnesota midfielder Kevin Venegas, who powered his shot into the back of the net to give Stars the 1-0 lead and keep the crowd out of the match from the early moments.
Salt Lake seemed to use that as a wake-up call and began to apply pressure to Minnesota, but still struggled to hold possession and gave the ball up too easily for stretches in the first half. Minnesota continued to be dangerous, but couldn’t find a second goal to bury the MLS side.
The match turned in the 30th minute though, as 18 year old Luis Gil fired a laser past Minnesota goalkeeper Matt VanOekel to draw RSL even at 1-1 and many in the crowd undoubtedly felt as if RSL would be able to continue playing their game and wear out the NASL team that wouldn’t be ready for the altitude at Rio Tinto.
After back-to-back saves by VanOekel to deny RSL the lead, momentum shifted for the final time just before the halftime whistle as the referee awarded Minnesota with what many deemed a questionable penalty kick awarded for a handball by Jamison Olave on a cross struck by Amani Walker. Neil Hlavaty put the spot kick past a diving Kyle Reynish and the Stars felt confident that they would be able to spring the upset heading into the break.
Kreis made his first change of the match, inserting regular starter Tony Beltran into the defense for rookie Terakazu Tanaka, but the RSL defense still seemed to struggle with the Stars players for whatever reason.
Only three minutes later, an injury forced RSL defensive mid Yordanny Alvarez from the match, as he was replaced by another rookie in Sebastian Velasquez in the midfield. And then Minnesota found the back of the net for the third time as Simone Bracalello scored his first of the match.
RSL is no stranger to late game heroics, and applied pressure to the Minnesota backline repeatedly over the final 25 minutes of the match, with a number of shots just missing the mark. The Minnesota defense bunkered behind the ball to hold their lead and had little problem clearing the danger out of their defensive third, while always prepared to counter attack when possible.
The crowd tried to will the ball toward the back of the net, but it wasn’t meant to be as the team that played the best on the night won the match. Afterward, Kreis spoke to the media, saying “We owe an apology to our fans. They were terrific and we let them down miserably.”
The feeling from the veteran leaders of the team was the same, as many of them took to Twitter after the game. Defender Nat Borchers, who wears the armband when normal captain Kyle Beckerman is away, posted: “That was embarrassing from us tonight. It’s okay to make mistakes; it’s not okay to give up. Thanks to all of you for coming out tonight.”
It is the second time RSL has been upended by Minnesota in the tournament. The previous incarnation, Thunder, stunned the visiting expansion MLS side, 6-4 in overtime, in the 2005 tournament, something that came to mind when the song Thunderstruck aired throughout the stadium, perhaps sparking the Stars’ second-half performance.
RSL now has a couple weeks to think about the result, as they do not have another match scheduled until June 16th. For Minnesota however, the squad will travel to face San Jose next week. If they can play with the same togetherness and determination that they took to Rio Tinto Stadium, the Earthquakes will have their hands full and Minnesota could keep advancing in the Open Cup.
Minnesota Stars 3:1 Real Salt Lake
Rio Tinto Stadium – Sandy, UT
MIN – Venegas (Kallman) 3’
RSL – Gil (Grabavoy) 29’
MIN – Hlavaty (PK) 45’
MIN – Bracalello (Kallman) 58’
RSL – Velasquez (handball) 83’
RSL – Olave (tactical foul) 85’
Real Salt Lake (4-1-2-1-2) – Kyle Reynish; Terukazu Tanaka (Tony Beltran 46), Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers (c), Chris Wingert; Yordany Alvarez (Sebastian Velasquez 53), Ned Grabavoy, Jonny Steele, Luis Gil; Emiliano Bonfigli, Paulo Junior (Cody Arnoux 67)
Substitutes Not Used: Lalo Fernandez (GK), Enzo Martinez, Chris Estridge, Fabian Espindola
Minnesota Stars FC (4-2-3-1) – Matt VanOekel; Justin Davis, Brian Kallman, Kyle Altman (c) (Connor Tobin 76), Ernest Tchoupe; Neil Hlavaty, Kentaro Takada, Kevin Venegas, Miguel Ibarra, Martin Nunez (Devin Del Do); Amani Walker (Simone Bracalello 46)
Substitutes Not Used: Mitch Hildebrandt (GK), Kevin Friedland, Fuad Ibrahim, Daniel Wasson
Referee: Tyler Ploeger
Referee’s Assistants: Brandon Major, Alex Krelo
4th Official: Brad Jensen
Weather: Sunny and 77 degrees