USOC Preview: Minnesota Stars coach Manny Lagos returns to face mentor Frank Yallop

The early MLS years of the San Jose Earthquakes franchise were forgettable — save a memorable win in the league’s inaugural match in 1996 — as the team found little success in the standings and in the playoffs. However, in the build up to the 2001 season, two important components were brought aboard that would help transform the club from also-ran to MLS powerhouse over the next three seasons.

In a frenetic first week of February, as other teams around the league attempted their own transformations, the Earthquakes made a pair of bold moves in making Frank Yallop their head coach and trading away a pair of draft picks to acquire midfielder Manny Lagos. The two San Jose newcomers, along with a host of other personnel changes, helped propel the team to that season’s MLS Cup Championship. The two would continue to find success together and combined to capture a second title for the Earthquakes in 2003.

Now, just under a decade later, the coach and player are to be reunited, though under much different circumstances. While Yallop left San Jose after the 2003 season to become the head coach of the Canadian national team, and Lagos moved on via trade to the Columbus Crew, both find themselves together again as tonight they will face off in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup as the opposing head coaches of the Earthquakes and Minnesota Stars respectively.

“We talk occasionally and are looking forward to seeing each other,” Yallop said after Monday’s team training session, “but on Tuesday we will be two guys trying to win a soccer game. I have a lot of respect for Manny, not just as a coach and player but also as a person. I’m glad he’s doing well with Minnesota, I just hope not on Tuesday.”

Taking his place on the visitors’ bench tonight at Cagan Stadium (kick-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m.) will be the man that has led the Stars to an NASL championship in the club’s brief two year history, and is aiming to see just how his team measures up against a squad coached by one of his most important mentors.

“I’m looking forward to facing Frank,” said Lagos late Monday after his team had arrived in San Francisco following a long day of travel. “I have communicated with him often about different aspects of coaching, so I am excited, and it brings up a good moment in my coaching career. Frank is one of the few coaches that shapes and gives me the vision in how I see the game and coach the team.”

The pleasantries the two professionals share for each other will be put aside tonight, as the Earthquakes and the Stars face a win-or-go-home match in the Open Cup tournament. And while both teams are currently in the middle of their league campaigns, each coach has a slightly different plan to prepare for their teams’ meeting. For Minnesota, that included the decision to leave most of their first team players at home for a weekend NASL match last Saturday away to San Antonio.

“We are definitely trying to manage a complicated schedule,” said Lagos about the line-up decision. “This will be our sixth game in 16 days and we are excited to go up against an MLS opponent. The guys are looking forward to it and want to advance.”

The Stars sit just a point below league leaders Puerto Rico Islanders in the standings, but are still undefeated nine games into the 2012 season courtesy of a 4-0-5 record. Most importantly for the Minnesota club is their stunning victory last week over Real Salt Lake — a 3-1 decision at Rio Tinto Stadium — which lets the league-managed team continue to prove the level of talent playing in the second tier of American (and Canadian) professional soccer.

“It’s a short but proud history that is shrouded in a bit of uncertainty right now,” explained Lagos, echoing a sentiment that is not that uncommon for lower league clubs. “We are a league owned team that has its roots to the Minnesota Thunder, the team my father worked with for many years. With the legacy of that team and the new NASL, we are trying to build it up as a proper level two soccer league just below MLS.”

What inspiration Lagos finds in keeping alive the dream of professional soccer in the state of Minnesota traces its origins in those years his father worked for the Thunder, but also in the lessons he learned as a professional soccer player over his ten year career. The midfielder was an important part of the 2003 Earthquakes team that famously topped the Los Angeles Galaxy 5-4 in the playoffs after falling behind 4-0 to reach that season’s MLS Cup Final. The team slogan that year was “We Believe!” — a sentiment that was shared by supporters and players alike in that magical run to the championship.

“What I remember most about that was how being such a close knit group, there was this sense on the field that we were not going to give up at that point,” recalled Lagos of that moment looking at the Spartan Stadium scoreboard and seeing the lopsided score. “Down 4-0 at home just ten minutes into the game, I’d been on teams where we’d look one another in the eye and that would be it, and we would play only to get out of there not losing by more. But I just felt with the group we had, because we had been through so much for those many years, and particularly at home where we rarely lost, we still felt we could do it. That moment of coming back, I think it encapsulated what our years in San Jose and our formidable home record were all about. We didn’t want to give anything up, we never felt like we were going to lose, even when it looked almost certain that we were going to lose, we always felt like we were going to come back and get the win.”

Lagos has carried that experience with him through the remaining years of his playing career and into his successful tenure as a head coach. Now, with an NASL championship to add to his impressive haul of three MLS titles, Lagos continues with a tenacity for winning that has served the Stars well. Even the symmetry of facing an Earthquakes side that has adopted the slogan “Never Say Die” to explain their roaring start to the 2012 MLS season does not concern the Minnesota coach, and he welcomes tonight’s U.S. Open Cup challenge between two teams that are sure to play through to the final whistle.

“We are still learning, especially at this level, to continue to see how we play against the best teams in MLS,” explained Lagos. “But tonight is two professional teams playing against each other and when you have that scenario, anything can happen.”

(Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)

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