Des Moines Always a Menace for the Big Boys

Des Moines Menace – Playing in their 14th Open Cup – are an amateur club with a long and proud history of making the pros blush in American soccer’s national championship.
By: Jonah Fontela

The Des Moines Menace have a rich history of knocking off their betters in the U.S. Open Cup. It’s safe to say these Iowans simply don’t know their place.

The myth of the giant-killing Menace, a club founded in 1994 and well-suited to amateur successes with a pipeline from the strong collegiate programs at Creighton (in nearby Nebraska) and Des Moines’ own Drake University, began back at the 2005 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The first of the Menace’s six overall wins against professional opponents came in June of 2005, when they were still a part of the old Premier Development League (PDL), against the then-USL Second Division’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Giant-slaying roots sunk in ‘05

“In 2005 we were a really good team,” Tomas Boltnar, a Menace legend who played at the club for seven seasons and even had his number-21 jersey retired, told “We got past Pittsburgh and we didn’t have any trouble with the [Charleston] Battery [USL First Division] at home [A 3-2 win in which Boltnar scored the opener after eight minutes] and then we drew the Atlanta Silverbacks in the next round – and we just smoked them.

“I remember the Atlanta coach wanted to sign three or four of our guys up right after the game,” Boltnar, who scored from the spot that day, added of the 5-1 thrashing of the D2 Silverbacks. The result set the stage for a Fourth-Round date with the defending Open Cup-champion Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) of Major League Soccer – the top professional league in the land.

Tomas Boltnar (center)

That Wizards team boasted a number of U.S. men’s national team standouts of the era including MLS legend Preki, Jimmy Conrad and current Austin FC manager and three-time Open Cup winner Josh Wolff.

“They took it to us pretty good that day,” remembered Boltnar, whose side stayed level at 1-1 through the quarter-hour mark before the wheels came off in a 6-1 loss.

Czech hero of the early days

Boltnar came to the States from Zlin, in the former Czechoslovakia, in his early high school years. He went on to have a standout college career with California University of Pennsylvania before heading west to join the Menace. He holds as one of his cherished Open Cup moments scoring a free-kick “with eight or nine guys” in the wall in front of a crowd of nearly 10,000 on the road in 2002 against the 1999 Open Cup-winning Rochester Rhinos in a Second Round loss.

“Only three people in the crowd cheered for that goal and I’m sure it was my dad and my two college friends,” added Boltnar, who, despite professional interest, remained in Des Moines – where he lives to this day with his family and still coaches youth soccer.
2013 captain Brandon Fricke

All the Menace’s Cup runs, no matter how deep, end in losses to pro teams. That’s the nature of things. The Open Cup, so romantic in its essence, is also a realist. But in facing off with the pros, fully paid to play, and testing yourself on the day, lives a kind of spiritual victory only the Open Cup can offer.

Boltnar was even better in 2006. He finished the tournament as top-scorer, grabbing the lone goal in a 1-0 home win over the previous year’s Semifinalists the Minnesota Thunder (then of the USL First Division) in a game where the Menace played over 70 minutes down a man.

Another road ends in Kansas City

Kansas City’s Wizards ended the dream again in 2006, when, with a starting XI largely made up of reserve players, they edged the Menace 2-1 in the Third Round.

But the 2013 Open Cup brought another proud Menace run. It's one that’s remembered well by Brandon Fricke – who’s about to line up in the 2023 Open Cup with Greenville Triumph of USL League One.

“All it takes is one goal,” said Fricke, born and raised on the outskirts of Des Moines and steeped in the traditions of the Menace, about the 1-0 win over Minnesota United (then of second-tier pro league NASL). “It was cold and rainy and they put out a good team that night – full of guys who went on to have big careers.”

The score stayed tangled at no-goals until late in the game. And after Sean Hoek missed a header, Fricke thought “that might have been it; we might have missed our chance.”

But, with just four minutes to go: “We got a corner and I found myself in good space at the near post and just was able to head it home,” added Fricke, now in the autumn of his playing days at the age of 30.

The remaining minutes were tense. But when the final whistle blew, Fricke – captain on that famous day – became part of the legend and lore of his hometown club – where he first played as a high schooler and then every summer through his college career at Butler University.

‘Dreams do come true in the Cup’

“It’s what makes the Open Cup so special,” added Fricke, remembering back and always happy to talk about those old days. “Anything can happen on any day. You can have a run and dreams can really come true.”

Fricke smiles when asked about the possibility of his Triumph side, who begin their 2023 Open Cup on the road against USL Championship side Phoenix Rising FC, maybe facing off with his beloved Menace. “I want them [the Menace] to beat the hell out of everyone and I’m gonna’ root for them until we meet them,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

The Menace, who reached the USL League Two Conference Finals last year after winning the league’s national championship in 2021, have caused the blushes of pro opponents on six separate occasions in their 14 trips to the U.S. Open Cup.

And now, in 2023, the 2013 Cup veteran and Co-General Manager Charlie Bales has built a squad he hopes has the same combination of spirit, talent and guts as those Des Moines teams of old. After traveling long miles in the First Round to make easy meat of Open Division sensations Beaman United, this most recent iteration of the giant-killing Menace are back among the pros with a Second Round home test against Chattanooga FC.

One thing is certain at the outset: the Menace men of today will be ready and willing to carve out their own little slice of history this spring .

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.