After two long years without the U.S. Open Cup because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the game that made us fall in love with this glorious competition all over again.
Third-division Union Omaha — contesting just its second-ever Open Cup match — travelled to 60,000-seat Soldier Field on April 19 to take on four-time champion Chicago Fire and twice came from a goal down, including an equalizer in the 122nd-minute, to prevail in a penalty shootout.
The result served as a national wakeup call for what's developing in Omaha, Nebraska. Beyond being the site of the annual NCAA College World Series and the preferred cadence of Peyton Manning, Omaha is now the shining city on top of America's lower-division hill.
Formed in 2019, the Owls began play in 2020 under the inauspicious conditions of COVID-19. Attendance was restricted at Werner Park — the minor league baseball stadium the club shares with the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers — so there certainly wasn't much the team could do to drum up interest in the city.
The expansion side finished second in the 11-team division to advance directly to the final against first-place Greenville Triumph. However, the match was ultimately canceled after several Omaha players tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the final, and Greenville was awarded the title.
Things started taking off for the Owls in 2021. Manager Jay Mims — a Tennessee native who's extremely familiar with the area after spending 10 years as an assistant at Creighton University in Omaha before leading the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) program for seven — led the high-scoring team to a first-place regular-season finish.
"We'll be high tempo, 100 miles per hour, very high pace and keep the game going," Mims said of Omaha's style. "Skillful players out there and quick players out there, quick-thinking players."
Locals responded with pre-match tailgating in the parking lot and big turnouts inside the stadium. The Owls had the largest average attendance in 2021 USL League One at 3,177, and the season ended with a record crowd of 5,221 watching the playoff final as Omaha hosted and defeated Greenville 3-0.
The stage was set for 2022 and the club's first-ever U.S. Open Cup appearance after the tournament's two-year hiatus.
The team's journey began in the second round, where Omaha needed an 81st-minute own goal to get by fourth-tier Des Moines Menace. From there the third-round draw gave the Owls exactly what they wanted: a trip to Chicago to take on an MLS opponent.
On the field for the Fire were Rafael Czichos ($1.3 million salary) and Kacper Przybylko ($1.2 million); the Owls countered with two guys who'd played for Creighton (Conor Doyle, Dion Acoff) and three who played for UNO (Emir Alihodžić, Hugo Kametani, Eddie Gordon).
Trailing 2-1 at the end of extra time, the Owls found a late miracle to force penalties.
The @alex_touche goal that took us to penalties, the @lilshido save that kept us there, and the Acoff winner that sealed it!We're forgetting tonight. #OneMeansAll | @opencup pic.twitter.com/wQrt7KDEU4
— ⭐️ Union Omaha (@Union_Omaha) April 20, 2022
In the shootout, 26-year-old goalkeeper Rashid Nuhu, who was born in Ghana and came through the Right to Dream Academy, was the hero when stonewalling Miguel Navarro's attempt before Acoff converted the winner.
"It did definitely open a lot of eyes not just locally, but nationally," Mims said. "A big upset like that and it was really neat. Now that you know, eyes are on us, which is neat, and now it's our job to kind of keep it going."
Omaha did just that in the Round of 32.
The Owls were drawn against the newly formed Northern Colorado Hailstorm of USL1. The Hailstorm had shocked Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium the previous round, so this was a meeting of third-division darlings, but Noe Meza and Doyle (who's Omaha's most experienced player with previous stints at Derby County, D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids) scored in a 2-0 win in Omaha.
Our captain scores our second with a classy, composed finish after some @josephbrito08 link-up play.That's a goal @ConorDoyle14 absolutely deserves! #OneMeansAll | #OMAvNCO pic.twitter.com/Pab6FDUiQz
— ⭐️ Union Omaha (@Union_Omaha) May 12, 2022
The Sweet Sounds of a @Union_Omaha Goal #USOC2022 pic.twitter.com/NXnEIG6oAj— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 12, 2022
The victory put Omaha into the Round of 16, and it also secured the club $25,000 in prize money as the last USL1 side remaining. The reward on the pitch was revealed in the draw: a trip to Allianz Field in Saint Paul on Wednesday, May 25, to take on 2019 U.S. Open Cup runner-up Minnesota United.
This will be a much more difficult assignment for Omaha as the Loons will field a strong lineup at this point in the competition. There will also be a larger, more partisan crowd than what the Owls faced at Soldier Field.
But there's reason for optimism. Minnesota has endured a mediocre start to the season and sits ninth in the Western Conference after 12 games. Their attack has been woeful with just 13 goals in 12 matches, so the Owls might be able to absorb pressure before hitting the Loons on the counter.
Win or lose, the team's U.S. Open Cup run has created a lot of momentum around Omaha, with this season's average attendance up to 3,375 and people championing for a new, soccer-specific stadium in the downtown area.
"We've got nothing to lose," said Doyle when looking ahead to the matchup. "It's that simple."