Minnesota Thunder face Vancouver tonight in playoff - Pioneer Press

Thunder turn around season after coaching change and advance to postseason for first time since 2004
By Tim Leighton
tleighton@pioneerpress.com

Donny Gramenz has given Minnesota Thunder management plenty to think about when it comes time to hiring a permanent head coach. He wants the job and believes he has earned the removal of "interim'' from his job title.

But he doesn't make the decisions on such matters, so he doesn't say much about it now. He's too busy preparing the Thunder for their first postseason appearance since 2004.

The Thunder (10-11-9) open the first round of the United Soccer Leagues First Division playoffs tonight at Vancouver (15-7-8) in the first game of a two-game, aggregate-score series. Game 2 is Sunday at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

"Win or lose, I think I have opened their eyes,'' said Gramenz, a Cottage Grove native who played 13 standout seasons for the Thunder before retiring in 2003. "I am not concerned. What I think and what I believe doesn't really matter because I am not the one making the decision.''

One of the decision makers, Thunder President Manny Lagos, avoided the topic during the team's final tuneup Wednesday before departing for British Columbia on Thursday.

"I think this week we are really concentrating on the playoffs,'' Lagos said. "A lot of that will be assessed in the weeks and months to come.''

Gramenz took over for longtime friend and former teammate Amos Magee, who stepped down July 23 with the Thunder 4-8-4 and in last place. The Thunder are 3-0-3 in their past six games, including a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Impact last week to clinch a playoff spot.

"I was thrust into a tough spot,'' Gramenz said. "It was touchy, of course, but in any job, when someone calls you into a new role, you are more than happy to do it.''

Magee works in the Thunder front office as a consultant.

"I'm not one to reflect on things in the past; I am one to look ahead,'' Gramenz said. "Yes, I am pleased we made the playoffs, but the immediate future of this team is what matters now. I took over when we were in last place. That isn't an easy thing to do.''

Thunder players say a coaching change was only part of the team's late-season recipe for success.

"When we got our first win in about two months, there was still like 14 games left,'' said defender Brian Kallman, a former Woodbury standout. "We felt there was still time to do something. We just had to believe. A new atmosphere was created. Donny has been running great training sessions, and he has given us great confidence to play within ourselves.''

Goalkeeper Nic Platter agreed.

"After going so many games without a positive result, we knew something had to change,'' he said. "The coaching change was a part of it, but it was also a renewed commitment from everybody. Changes had to come from within. We had to make commitments to do little things right. We knew the playoffs were attainable. Fortunately, we were able to get there.''

Under Gramenz, the Thunder have minimized mistakes and have played a balanced attack, which has made them less predictable. Although the Thunder can play the possession game, they also can kick and run on quick-strike counterattacks.

"I really do believe that this team, no matter what their record was, that their work rate stayed the same,'' Gramenz said. "With losing comes negative things, but that has been minimized. Once they had the taste of winning and getting positive results, there was no stopping these guys.''

Briefly: Minnesota is 1-1-1 against Vancouver. The Thunder's victory came April 26 in their second game of the season.

# Ricardo Sanchez and Melvin Tarley lead the Thunder with 10 goals each.