It started with a run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, continued with a journey to a three-peat championship, and ended with a couple shots at payback in the playoffs.
The Des Moines Menace’s 2016 season was a fun ride, and the team found success at just about every turn in the road.
Mike Matkovich’s Menace won the Heartland Division championship for the third straight year. And before even venturing into its Premier Development League season, the team already had a pair of Open Cup wins, including an upset of a professional team.
A perfect-record May began with a come-from-behind win at FC Wichita on May 11 and a satisfying victory over Tulsa Roughnecks FC a week later, when comeback kid Sean Hoek and rookie Elvir Ibisevic electrified Valley Stadium with second-half strikes in a 2-0 win.
An action-packed June started with a close call in another Open Cup home match, and it picked up steam with an undefeated league run – highlighted by a three-win sweep through Canada – that almost stretched into the last month of the season.
With a fourth-round trip to Houston and the Major League Soccer spotlight up for grabs, San Antonio FC visited Des Moines on June 1. The Menace’s Open Cup magic spilled over, as the underdogs snatched a lead that lasted into the final 20 minutes. Fielding a lineup loaded with former MLS players, the pros rallied to wipe out the euphoria from Christian Flath’s curling dandy of a 58th-minute free-kick goal.
So the Menace’s full focus turned to league play, and the team extended its regular-season undefeated streak to 17 matches. Entering its final test of June, the team hadn’t lost a regular-season match in more than a year.
And then, the Menace stumbled briefly and experienced its first back-to-back losses since 2013. Setbacks at Chicago on June 28 and Kokomo three days later proved to be the only losses in a 10-2-2 run to the franchise’s fifth division crown.
A whirlwind of a July gave the Menace a chance to get back on track and build a bit of momentum for the playoffs. On July 2, Des Moines turned the tables in Indiana, shutting out KokoMantis FC, 2-0, one night after the expansion club humbled the Menace by an identical score.
Heading into the final two weekends of the season, the first-place Menace controlled its fate.
On back-to-back Saturdays, the home team fell behind to rivals Thunder Bay (the Heartland Division’s other postseason representative) and St. Louis. On both occasions, Tommy Barlow delivered the goods. The curly-haired super sub scored in the 90th minute of a 1-1 draw with the Chill on July 9, and in the season finale he found the game-winner in the 68th minute, right after Ricky Hoegg’s free-kick strike tied the Lions.
Back to the playoffs. For the second straight year, the Menace headed to Pontiac, Mich. For the third straight year, the Menace’s postseason would begin with a Central Conference semifinal against K-W United FC.
Familiar postseason foes awaited the Menace. In 2014, the Michigan Bucks downed the Menace – one night after Des Moines downed K-W in a shootout at Valley Stadium – on the way to the PDL title. In 2015, K-W ousted the Menace en route to the championship.
Redemption came in a surprisingly one-sided, 5-1 victory on July 22 inside Ultimate Soccer Arenas. From the get-go, the Menace was all over the defending champs. With James Wypych, Mark Heath-Preston and Ramone Howell leading the attack, the Menace cruised to victory. Des Moines led 3-0 at the break and never looked back.
The Menace’s season ended the next night. A pair of second-half scores sent the home-side Bucks past the Menace in a battle of the PDL’s two most storied clubs. In the following two Saturday nights on this same indoor field, Michigan ousted Midland/Odessa (3-0) and finalist Calgary (3-2).
Though Des Moines’ playoff run – like its time in the U.S. Open Cup – did not stretch as far as the team had hoped, 2016 brought a season full of highlights, including…
CUP + UPSET = #CUPSET
It had been more than a decade since the Menace’s last home win over a professional team in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The amateurs changed that on May 18 with a 2-0 home win over Tulsa Roughnecks FC. A couple weeks later, another United Soccer League side – San Antonio FC – came to Valley Stadium and rallied for a 2-1 win that set up a fourth-round matchup with the Houston Dynamo. Along the way, the Menace coined #Cupset and enjoyed watching this newly merged hashtag trend on Twitter.
The Menace’s first-place division finish ensures the team a spot in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. This will be the franchise’s eighth consecutive appearance – and 12th overall – in the storied national tournament. Des Moines has won at least one Open Cup match in each of the last five years, building its all-time Cup record to 14-11 to edge the Michigan Bucks for the most wins by an amateur club.
In 2016, Mark Heath-Preston was the lone Menace player to score in the U.S. Open Cup, the PDL regular season and the PDL Playoffs. The second-year vet pulled the Menace even in a first-round, 2-1 Cup win at Wichita on May 11. A week later, he was back on the field for the Menace in an Open Cup match on May 18 – just a day after his wife, Mollee, gave birth to daughter Ivey Clair. Heath-Preston, now a father of two daughters and the head coach at Bellevue (Neb.), also scored twice in league play and twice more in the playoff-opening, 5-1 win over K-W United on July 22.
WONDER GOAL BY WUNDERKIND
While Heath-Preston (29) was the oldest member of the team, Elvir Ibisevic – a Bosnian-born resident of Johnston – was the youngest. Before playing his fall of college soccer at Nebraska-Omaha, the 18-year-old Ibisevic shined in his freshman year with the Menace. He scored three times in PDL play, and he thrilled the hometown fans with a beauty of a goal in the U.S. Open Cup. On May 18, Ibisevic’s 25-yard, line-drive golazo sealed the Menace’s 2-0 Cupset of Tulsa.
The Menace has gone more than three years since its last home loss in the regular season. Des Moines’ 22-match unbeaten streak survived a few scares at Valley Stadium in 2016: the Menace pulled out 2-1 wins to start (Chicago on May 21) and end (St. Louis on July 16) the PDL schedule, and the Menace scratched out ties against Kokomo (0-0 on June 4) and Thunder Bay (1-1 on July 9).
Leigh Veidman scored in five straight matches, saving the best for last. On June 24, the captain struck four times in a 7-0 win over WSA Winnipeg. With goals in the 40th, 63rd, 68th and 78th minutes, Veidman became the first Menace player since Tomas Boltnar (May 18, 2003) to collect four goals in a game. In addition to his game-winner at Wichita in the Open Cup opener on May 11, he scored nine times in a season abrupted by an injury in early July.
NOT SETTING THE BAR LOW
One night after Veidman’s four-goal onslaught, Tommy Barlow followed with a three-goal performance – scoring thrice in a 30-minute stretch of a 9-0 win over Winnipeg on June 25. The hat-trick hero finished the season with seven goals, including clutch scores in the final two matches of the regular season. Barlow’s last-minute goal on July 9 gifted the Menace a 1-1 tie with Thunder Bay; a week later, the Wisconsin Badger tallied the game-winner to get the Menace past St. Louis, 2-1.
CHILLY RECEPTION FOR THUNDER BAY
Including the fortunate 1-1 tie on July 9, the Menace is undefeated is six of its last seven home matches (5-1-1) against the arch-rival Thunder Bay Chill. The PDL’s longest-standing rivalry has been dominated by the home teams in recent years. Shaking this up, the 2016 Menace escaped Thunder Bay with its first road sweep of the Chill since 2006. Prior to the Menace’s wins in a June 10-11 doubleheader hosted by the Chill, Des Moines had gone 1-1-8 in its last 10 matches in Thunder Bay.
FEW BETTER THAN CAMPBELL & LEDBETTER
The PDL’s all-Central Conference team featured a defensive duo from the Menace – goalkeeper Nico Campbell and center-back Austin Ledbetter. Campbell posted a 0.44 Goals Against Average; Ledbetter logged a team-best 855 minutes. They led the way for a stifling D that allowed just seven goals – tied with Michigan for the best in the PDL.
RETURN TRIP TO MICH-AGAIN
For the second straight year, and for the third time in six years, the Menace’s playoff journey started and ended inside Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, Mich. This time around, though, Des Moines picked up a postseason victory – 5-1 over reigning PDL champ K-W United on July 22. This was the Menace’s first playoff win away from home since the franchise’s benchmark win in El Paso to claim the 2005 championship.
ANOTHER KIND OF THREE-PEAT
Each of the Menace’s last three regular seasons has ended with the team sitting atop the Heartland Division table. And, each of the last three postseasons has ended with the Menace falling to the eventual champion of the PDL Playoffs. Michigan defeated the Menace in the Central Conference Championship in 2014 and 2016, and K-W United FC rallied past the Menace in 2015.
249 WINS AND COUNTING
Add up the Menace’s victories in the U.S. Open Cup (14), the PDL Playoffs (15) and the regular season (220), and this means that the team’s next win will be the franchise’s 250th win – a milestone to look forward to in the early going of the 2017 season.
2016 FINAL RESULTS (10-2-2 PDL: 5-0-2 home; 5-2-0 away)
Wednesday, May 11 # at FC Wichita W, 2-1
Wednesday, May 18 # Tulsa Roughnecks FC W, 2-0
Saturday, May 21 Chicago Fire U23 W, 2-1
Saturday, May 28 at St. Louis Lions W, 2-0
Wednesday, June 1 # San Antonio FC L, 1-2
Saturday, June 4 Kokomo Mantis FC T, 0-0
Friday, June 10 at Thunder Bay Chill W, 2-0
Saturday, June 11 at Thunder Bay Chill W, 2-1
Tuesday, June 14 at WSA Winnipeg W, 6-0
Saturday, June 18 St. Louis Lions W, 2-0
Friday, June 24 WSA Winnipeg W, 7-0
Saturday, June 25 WSA Winnipeg W, 9-0
Tuesday, June 28 at Chicago Fire U23 L, 0-1
Friday, July 1 at Kokomo Mantis FC L, 0-2
Saturday, July 2 at Kokomo Mantis FC W, 2-0
Saturday, July 9 Thunder Bay Chill T, 1-1
Friday, July 15 ^ Toledo United FC W, 4-3
Saturday, July 16 St. Louis Lions W, 2-1
Friday, July 22 * vs. K-W United FC W, 5-1
Saturday, July 23 ** at Michigan L, 0-2
# = Exhibition | OC = Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup | * = PDL Playoffs