This fall, Nebraskans can cheer for a different kind of football.
Union Omaha, a soccer club in Omaha that competes in the United Soccer League as part of its League One division, was scheduled to debut in April until the COVID-19 pandemic put the season in jeopardy. The USL has since announced plans to start a shortened season, with July 18 being its tentative start date.
“Our first home game will be no sooner than August 1 due to conflicting schedules with Werner Park” said Matt Homonoff, Union Omaha Chief Operating Officer.”But there are quite a few hurdles to jump over before we get to that point. Notably making sure the bubble that we create around the team and staff is secure and that everyone continues to test negative.”
Keeping teams COVID-19 free is crucial. The National Women’s Soccer League’s Orlando Pride found out the hard way. The club had to drop out of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup after six players and four staff members tested positive. Both USL League One and Union Omaha have stressed social distancing for their players in order to prevent an outbreak from happening in the league.
“Unless it’s absolutely necessary, like a trip to get groceries or doctor’s appointments,” Homonoff said. “It’s being smart and following the guidelines that have been here since the beginning. We hope the case of the Pride serves as a cautionary tale because we know a couple of their players did not follow protocol and now the whole team’s paying the price.”
The pandemic has also put a damper on their plans to build a passionate fanbase they hope will pack Werner Park, which is Union Omaha’s home stadium. It also houses the Kansas City Royal’s Triple AAA baseball affiliate Omaha Storm Chasers.
League policy states that teams are to follow local guidelines when determining whether they can allow fans into the park or the number of fans they can admit. With live games on hold, the team had to get creative and find new ways to support the community of Omaha.
“We were able to donate the front of our game jerseys to Nebraska Medicine and CHI Health, two organizations that are clearly on the forefront of this crisis both locally and nationally,” Homonoff said. “We’re also donating $10 for every jersey sold, to give back to the community and do what we can to help.”
Social media has also played a major role in keeping fans engaged. Players do live Q&A’s almost every week, and the team has a Twitch account where fans can watch players livestream video games such as FIFA.
“Social media has given us the opportunity to reach fans of all demographics, regardless of location because increasingly we’re seeing that we have fans all over the world, especially as our playing roster gets more and more diverse,” Homonoff said.
Because of efforts like this and interactions with fans, Homonoff believes that Union Omaha can grow the game and become part of the culture in Omaha.
“It really struck me just how hungry people I talked to were for a pro team to call their own. There was a clear understanding to me before we announced the team and brand that soccer was popular in Omaha,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone truly understood how truly ingrained that soccer is in our community. We found that it’s not specific among any specific demographic, it’s popular across the board.”
The team prides itself on including every demographic and being a place for everyone. Player Seba Contreras has done a Q&A in Spanish with fans, and the team frequently uses the #VamosBuhos hashtag across social media, which means “Go Owls” in Spanish.
The team has had to restructure community activities because of the pandemic. They did a curbside ballpark meal pick-up with the players and staff members in full PPE passing out meals as well as scarves for season ticket holders.
“The hope is that Werner Park becomes the meeting place for our community,” Homonoff said. “Regardless of background, age, ethnicity, race if you enjoy the game as a form of entertainment we want to be here for you. The hope is that the fans find the team as a vehicle for their passion and get involved with the community activities, many of which are designed to benefit the less fortunate in our community.”