The Des Moines Menace’s 2009 season started under an uncertain cloud of questions and ended with two division championships and a run to the Premier Development League’s Elite Eight – the franchise’s best finish since the 2005 PDL championship.
When the Menace walked onto the field for the first game of the season, the team featured only one returning player – fifth-year veteran Ross Moffat. The rest of the Menace players were young with little to no experience in the PDL’s Heartland Division.
How long would it take the players to come together as a team? Would the Menace make it to the playoffs after two years of near misses? What players would emerge the leaders on a team with an ever-changing roster?
“You face the same questions every year when you bring a majority of your roster from out of town,” said Menace head coach Casey Mann. “You don’t know how the guys will work together or if they will mesh.”
The concerns that darkened the beginning of the season were replaced with confidence and the Heartland Division’s 2009 regular-season and division championships. Finishing the regular season with a record of 11-1-4, the Menace had three more wins than any other team in its division and picked up home field advantage for the divisional playoffs.
The Menace hosted the Real Colorado Foxes at Valley Stadium on July 25, one day after the expansion team ousted the defending PDL champion Thunder Bay Chill.
The Foxes and the Menace exchanged penalty kicks before Joe Salem came through with a goal off an assist from Jack Pearson in the 38th minute. Des Moines held on, with goalkeeper Sean Molony making seven saves, to record the Menace’s first playoff victory since 2005.
Des Moines’ season ended at Valley Stadium the following weekend in the quarterfinals. The Cary (N.C.) Clarets stunned the Menace with a goal during the 70th minute after the home team had controlled play for most of the match.
“If anyone saw these kids at the end of the Cary game, tears in their eyes, just emotionally crushed, they would have seen what made me so proud of this group,” said Mann. “I am so proud and so lucky to be able to coach a group of kids that gave us their all, really and truly, and the playoffs were a nice way to recognize their efforts. Although it hurts to lose your last game, I am most proud of the fight they gave all season long.”
One of the season’s biggest battles was the series with the St. Louis Lions. During the first month of the season, the Menace battled the Lions to a 2-2 outcome two weeks in a row. Each time, the Lions came from behind in the final minutes to knot the score.
The May 23 draw in St. Louis kept Des Moines from qualifying for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup; the Lions edged the Menace in a goal-differential tie-breaker.
The teams’ July 18 regular-season finale at Valley Stadium was a different story. In his only action of the season, back-up goalkeeper Kyle Zobeck faced 11 shots and saved six to hold on to the shutout and the 3-0 triumph. It was the Menace’s first win over St. Louis at home and only the second victory in the teams’ 11 meetings.
The two draws with the Lions were the first of four straight ties for the Menace, which had opened the season with three straight wins.
The team was also able to grab the early lead on June 4 at Kansas City and on June 12 at Thunder Bay, only to surrender late goals and settle for a single point in the standings.
“I wasn’t really worried because we weren’t losing,” said Pearson, a native of Coventry, England. “We were creating chances, but just not putting the game away.”
The momentum shifted during the trip to Thunder Bay. Sparked by the return of veteran Armin Mujdzic, the Menace toppled the defending PDL champions on June 13, snapping the string of ties.
“The turning point of the season was the 3-1 win in Thunder Bay,” said Mann. “We had just tied our fourth straight, giving up another late goal, and emotions kind of erupted and that next day they came out and really played well. It started a good run of games for us.”
Playing with a renewed sense of confidence, the Menace ended the season by winning 10 of its last 12 games. The only bumps were 1-0 losses to Thunder Bay on July 4 and the season-ending defeat at the hands of Cary on July 31.
“We had a group of kids who came to Des Moines from all over the country, sacrifice time with family and friends and summer vacations and give everything they had,” said Mann who will not be returning to the Menace next season after a mutual agreement with the organization to not renew his contract. “Many of these kids have future pro careers and they could have just taken it easy, but they battled through pain, through fatigue and gave everything they had. It really meant something to be a part of this group.”
On a team with no superstars, but with a bunch of players who had determination and a good work ethic, these players stood out:
Armin Mujdzic had a team-best five goals and was second on the team with 12 points. After the former Grand View and Urbandale standout’s first appearance during the June 6 exhibition game against the Winnipeg Lions, he was named PDL Player of the Week for his assist and two goals at Thunder Bay the following weekend.
“It gave the team a boost knowing that Armin was coming off the bench to provide some energy in the second half,” said Pearson.
Mujdzic scored at least a point in his first five games back to the team after having previously played with the Menace from 2002-2007.
Ben Taylor led the team with 13 points. The spiky-haired Scot scored four goals and led the team with five assists. Taylor was named to the PDL Team of the Week after tallying two assists and one goal in the team's 4-0 win over Springfield on July 11. The Drury player notched a hat trick and an assist in the June 6 exhibition game.
Joe Salem returned from Tulsa University for a few games throughout the summer before coming back to Des Moines for the final weeks of the season. The 2008 all-Central Conference midfielder scored the game winner in the last two Menace victories, including the playoff-opener against Real Colorado.
Matt Dagilis, a central defender, gained the respect of his teammates and coach.
“Matt Dagilis was an unspoken hero of the summer. He goes unnoticed sometimes because he does so many little things well like winning headers, making tackles, making good passes, and playing a clean game,” said Pearson, who tallied the most minutes (1,438) out of all the field players.
“Some of our ‘unsung’ heroes were definitely Matt Dagilis,” said Mann. “He was a rock back there in the defense and so was our left back Stefan De Las. Those guys worked hard all season and we hardly gave up any goals, so they deserve a lot of credit.”
This Akron defender anchored a defense, along with Pearson, De Las, and Julien Edwards, that gave up only 13 goals in 16 games and recorded six shutouts.
Ross Moffat was the only returning player at the beginning of the season. He has played with the Menace since its 2005 championship run. He scored two goals during the season for four points, but was mostly noticed for his work off the field.
“The behind the scenes leader of this group was Ross Moffat,” said Mann. “When you have a young team, you need a veteran to lead them. Ross is a local guy, a Grand View guy and he represents what the PDL is about. He led this group and deserves a ton of credit.”
Samuel Asante tallied eight points from two goals and four assists. The fleet-footed Ghana refugee played in 13 games and recorded 770 minutes in the regular season.
Sean Molony stepped up as the Menace’s starting goalkeeper after last season’s star, Dan Williams, was unable to return for the summer.
Molony, held the defense together, making 60 saves in 170 shots faced. The Eastern Illinois goalie allowed only 15 goals to record a 0.88 Goals Against Average while tallying five shutouts.
Sterling Copeland, along with Molony and Jacob Schmoker, came to the Menace after playing with the rival Colorado Rapids U23 team in 2008. The fun-loving native of Colorado and recent Oral Roberts transfer was third on the team with nine points and led the team with 26 shots.
In a season full of high points, there were plenty of moments worth remembering.
Drake Domination Throughout the season, seven Drake players were on the Menace’s active roster, including a league-maximum five for much of the year. Those seven players combined for a total of 2,893 minutes, eight goals and three assists.
In a late season run, Drake players scored seven of 13 goals and recorded either a goal or assist on nine of the 13, including the July 11 game, when Kennedy, Garrett Webb and Edwards scored three of the game’s four goals. Drake players also recorded three game-winning scores.
Unbeaten Streak The Menace went unbeaten for an entire year, from July 5, 2008 to July 4, 2009. The streak began and ended with losses to Thunder Bay and was the only team in the 68-team PDL to carry an undefeated streak over from last season.
Kansas City Wizards Des Moines traveled to Kansas City to face the Major League Soccer team, the Kansas City Wizards.
“A highlight of the season was going down and playing the Wizards twice,” said Mann. “The second time we played their starters for 45 minutes and played really well. We gave up two set piece goals, but the boys walked away with a lot of enthusiasm, pride and learned a lot. We owe the Wizards a lot for allowing us to play them.”
PDL Team of the Week Three Menace players were selected for PDL Team of the Week. Mujdzic was named Player of the Week after his two goals and one assist in Thunder Bay.
Taylor made the team after two assists and one goal against Springfield on July 11. Pearson was chosen after leading the Menace to two shutouts and notching a goal and an assist in the July 27 and 28 matches.
Home Games Des Moines played 10 games at home, plus two exhibition games. The Menace drew an average home crowd of more than 3,800 fans during the regular season, leading the league in attendance for the seventh time in eight years.
“The best part of the season was when we had seven straight weekends at home. It was brilliant to know that you were going to play in front of a big crowd every week,” said Pearson. “It gave you confidence to know that you would have a winning display for them.”
PDL Coach of the Year Mann was selected as the PDL’s 2009 Coach of the Year. The award is voted on by coaches and general managers from the league’s 68 teams. Mann led the Menace to the Elite Eight in his fifth and final season as the club’s head coach.
“I'm thankful for the award and the recognition,” Mann said. “I'm truly honored because I know that there are so many great coaches and teams in the PDL. So to even just be considered for the award was special to me.”
2009 Season Results
(12-2-4 overall, 7-2-1 at home, 5-0-3 on the road)
Bold = home match played at 7:30 p.m. at Valley Stadium
Italics = exhibition match
# = U.S. Open Cup qualifying match
^= playoff match
Saturday, May 2 vs. Des Moines Latinos United W, 7-1
# Saturday, May 9 vs. Rochester Thunder W, 2-1
# Wednesday, May 13 at Springfield Demize W, 3-1
# Saturday, May 16 vs. Real Colorado Foxes W, 1-0
# Saturday, May 23 at St. Louis Lions T, 2-2
Saturday, May 30 vs. St. Louis Lions T, 2-2
Thursday, June 4 at Kansas City Brass T, 1-1
Saturday, June 6 vs. Winnipeg Lions W, 5-2
Friday, June 12 at Thunder Bay Chill T, 1-1
Saturday, June 13 at Thunder Bay Chill W, 3-1
Saturday, June 20 vs. Kansas City Brass W, 4-0
Saturday, June 27 vs. Springfield Demize W, 3-0
Sunday, June 28 at Rochester Thunder W, 1-0
Saturday, July 4 vs. Thunder Bay Chill L, 1-0
Wednesday, July 8 at Rochester Thunder W, 2-1
Saturday, July 11 vs. Springfield Demize W, 4-0
Thursday, July 16 at Kansas City Brass W, 3-2
Saturday, July 18 vs. St. Louis Lions W, 3-0
^Saturday, July 25 vs. Real Colorado Foxes W, 2-1
^Friday, July 31 vs. Cary Clarets L, 1-0