Jimmy Nielsen paints the wall
Gary Rohman

High stakes, higher drama make U.S. Open Cup a can't miss event on soccer calendar

Sporting Kansas City’s defense of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup begins Tuesday night when the Des Moines Menace of the USL Premier Development League visit Sporting Park.

On paper, there’s nothing really menacing about Des Moines, members of the USL Premier Development League. The PDL is currently the top-level men’s amateur league in the U.S., but the fourth tier of professional soccer, behind MLS, the North American Soccer League and USL PRO.

Needless to say, Sporting Kansas City enters its Round of 32 fixture as the overwhelming favorite. However, that’s not to say the Des Moines Menace should be overlooked. In fact, recent history of the U.S. Open Cup suggests that just about anything is possible, especially in the early rounds.

Sporting Kansas City’s clash with Des Moines may not generate excitement like a visit from League rivals Houston Dynamo this Sunday, but I can give you a multitude of reasons why you cannot miss the early rounds of the oldest annual team tournament in American sports history.

1. The Giant-Killings

Des Moines probably won’t face a team better than Sporting Kansas City all season, which is why they will approach this match like a Cup Final. This is their Super Bowl, their chance to embrace the role as David and slay Goliath.

And make no mistake, Goliath has fallen several times throughout this competition. In the 2012 Round of 32, eight MLS clubs (New England, Los Angeles, Columbus, Chicago, Houston, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Portland) lost to teams from lower leagues. If there’s such a thing as March Madness in American soccer, this is it.

The psychology behind these upsets is easy to understand. For Des Moines captain Brandon Fricke and goalkeeper Scott Angevine — who have trained at the Sporting Club Training Center in Swope Park in the past — Tuesday night might be the game of their lives. The Menace, despite falling short in quality, will have emotion and adrenaline on their side. That can go a long way in making up the talent gap.

2. Extra Time and Penalty Kicks

What made Sporting KC’s victory over the Seattle Sounders in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup Final so unforgettable? Well, several things — such as snapping Seattle’s three-year reign in the competition, two rainbows arching over the stadium during a rainy pregame, and…a dramatic penalty kick shootout.

Indeed, the U.S. Open Cup offers the mouthwatering possibility of 30 extra minutes and penalty kicks. Perhaps nothing tests a player’s nerves more than when he steps to the penalty spot and faces a lanky goalkeeper from 12 yards out. If the final whistle blows and the score is tied after 90 minutes, the atmosphere of elimination Cup matches can transform into a thrilling and tense environment.

3. A Glimpse Into the Future

For Sporting Kansas City’s younger and lesser-used players, the U.S. Open Cup is an excellent opportunity to gain experience. Because the Des Moines game comes just 48 hours after Sporting KC’s crucial League match with Houston, you can bet Manager Peter Vermes will make several changes to the starting XI.

In last year’s Third Round win over Orlando City, Jon Kempin, Konrad Warzycha, Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer played their first competitive minutes of the season.

Fast-forward 12 months and Saad has become a striking option off the bench. Warzycha has earned three MLS appearances for the Columbus crew. Kempin and Dwyer, meanwhile, are enjoying a successful loan spell at Orlando City — Kempin has started four matches in goal for the club and Dwyer leads USL Pro in scoring with 12 goals.

One of Sporting KC’s chief objectives is to cultivate a strong youth system of homegrown players. What better way to see this development in action than in the U.S. Open Cup?

4. High Stakes

Imagine Sporting KC squaring off against Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona in front of 70,000 spectators. Sounds like something you’d see from teenagers playing FIFA 13 on Xbox LIVE, right? This scenario, however unlikely, was made possible by Sporting KC’s 2012 U.S. Open Cup triumph.

When Vermes’ men lifted the Cup last August, they qualified for the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League, the most prestigious club competition in North American soccer. That alone is a terrific reward for success in the U.S. Open Cup, as Sporting KC will duel the best clubs from Mexico and the Caribbean.

And if Sporting KC were to win the competition next May — granted, that’s a big “if” — then they would advance to the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, which features that year’s champions of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania.

As long as Sporting KC remains in the CONCACAF Champions League, we can dream of a showdown with Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea or Bayern Munich. Winning the U.S. Open Cup ensures a berth into the competition.

The U.S. Open Cup also offers monetary incentives for clubs. The winners receive a $250,000 cash prize and the runners-up receive $60,000. The best finisher among the three lower divisional tiers receives $15,000. That may not seem like much to an MLS club, but teams like the Des Moines Menace would love an extra paycheck.