For first-time participants in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Union Omaha has already left quite a trail of defeated foes in its wake.
The defending League One champions began by taking down the reigning USL League Two champions in the Des Moines Menace. Since then, Omaha's gone on to best fellow League One side Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC and a pair of Major League Soccer opponents in Chicago Fire FC and Minnesota United FC.
With the $25,000 prize for becoming the top third division finisher secured, the Owls will continue their extraordinary cup run against four-time Open Cup champions Sporting Kansas City in the Quarterfinals. A two-and-a-half-hour drive south on I-29, Omaha will face off against its nearest pro-soccer neighbor for the first time, a matchup that has been eagerly anticipated since the draw was made last month.
“There are a ton of Sporting [Kansas City] fans in Omaha,” Head Coach Jay Mims said. “Union Omaha didn’t exist before 2020, but this run has made a lot of people in our community aware of who we are and what we do. Peter [Vermes] will have his team prepared, I’ll have my team prepared and that's all that matters. It’ll be difficult for us, but I think it's a really special opportunity. Everybody wanted it and now they have it.”
Starting the season with a 7-2-4 record across all competitions, Union Omaha have had remarkable early-season success thanks to a group of young stars. Omaha’s historic advancement in the U.S. Open Cup has – in large part – been a product of that young core.
“The new guys have been great. They got thrown into it right away, but they've been very receptive, very coachable,” Mims said. “The returning guys have been done well with the mentoring process. It’s been great to see that chemistry and that bond between the returning players and new guys.”
After exporting the top four goalscorers from their title-winning 2021 campaign to a quartet of USL Championship sides – Greg Hurst (Phoenix Rising FC), Evan Conway (San Diego Loyal SC), Damià Viader (Sacramento Republic FC) and Devin Boyce (Memphis 901 FC) – the Owls were tasked with reloading and retooling their roster.
Omaha began its title-defending season with 14 newcomers compared to just seven returnees. Not just that, but Omaha’s 21-man roster is young, really young. With an average age of 24 years and 11 months, more than half the squad is under the age of 25 and more than a third are in their first-ever professional seasons.
That youth and inexperience, though, has hardly proven to be a hindrance. In fact, it's played a decisive role in Omaha’s early-season success. In League One play, Omaha’s first-year pros have accounted for 42% of all possible minutes played and 63% of the side's goals and assists. Similarly, in U.S. Open Cup play, the same group has seen action in 42% of all possible minutes and accounted for 38% of all goals and assists tallied. Additionally, three-quarters of Omaha’s U.S. Open Cup goals and assists have come from club newcomers.
A key trio of first-year pros – forward Noe Meza, midfielder Joe Brito and forward Hugo Kametani – have led the Owls to new heights early in the season. Meza has accumulated the most goals (3) and assists (3) for Omaha, while Kametani (14) leads the club in shots and Brito (14) leads the side in chances created in league play. Additionally, Meza (2) and Brito (2) lead Omaha in U.S. Open Cup goals and assists, respectively, with Brito and Kametani having bagged goals to send the side past Minnesota in the Round of 16.
“I think we have a really good mix of experienced players and young guys,” said Brito. “We have guys like Conor Doyle and Dalton Knutson who've done it before and did it last year. Those guys have done a good job of guiding us in the right direction of what's expected here and how we play. At the same time, I think the coaching staff’s done a good job of finding the talent and the type of players that we needed to continue that success.”
The newfound chemistry has seen Omaha blaze trails for League One in the league’s second U.S. Open Cup participation. It's the first club from the league to not only participate in the tournament’s Round of 16 but also advance to the Quarterfinals. With its win against Minnesota United FC, Omaha became the first third-division club to advance to the Quarterfinals and beat multiple MLS clubs since Orlando City SC (USL Pro) in 2013.
“The Open Cup run has been incredible,” Mims said. “I couldn't come up with a better team-building activity than winning games in the Open Cup. It's just been a different feeling, a different buzz, a different togetherness when you play those games, and you win.”
Prior to Northern Colorado defeating Real Salt Lake, Omaha made history by becoming the first League One club to defeat an MLS opponent as the Owls bested Chicago Fire FC after a penalty shootout at Soldier Field in the Third Round. Meza’s 68th-minute goal in that contest wasn’t just his first in the professional ranks, it also saw him become the first player in League One history to score against an MLS side.
“I think the gap is a lot smaller than people think,” Brito said of the inter-division relationship in American soccer. “Here in America, especially with no promotion and relegation, it's a lot tighter. Now that there are more leagues, more teams, the talent is very spread out.”
“It’s great for the USL to have both Championship and League One representation in the Quarterfinals,” Mims added. “From the soccer side, it shows the quality. If you’re Omaha or Sacramento [Republic FC], you can’t get to the Quarterfinals without quality playing and quality coaching. You might get lucky in the First or Second Round, but you can’t make it this far without having that quality.”
With four victories in its first U.S. Open Cup run thus far, Union Omaha has tied the record for most victories in a tournament debut since 1996, joining the Rochester Raging Rhinos (A-League) in 1996, the San Francisco Seals (USISL D-3 Pro League) in 1997, Chicago Fire FC (MLS) in 1998, North Carolina FC (USL First Division) in 2007 and New Mexico United (USL Championship) in 2019.
The red-hot Owls will next aim to exploit an SKC side that has historically struggled the most with third-division opponents in Open Cup play. Across 19 tournament appearances, Sporting has put up winning records against first, second and fourth division opponents, but has accumulated a losing record against third division opponents with a 2-4 mark all-time, including a loss to Omaha’s current League One rival the Richmond Kickers in 2011.
As the side looks to become the first from the third division to topple three MLS clubs in the same tournament, the traveling support will be right behind the Owls. Omaha has announced its allocated section of away seats has sold out, with visiting fans expected to spill into the home crowd.
"Our mentality stays the same because it's gotten us this far," Brito said. "There's no point in changing it. I think that that mentality is an advantage to us that most [MLS] teams don't have because they are expected to win. I think that's a big advantage for us."