After waiting for four extra months, Union Omaha is ready to take the field.
The professional soccer team from Omaha will make its USL League One debut July 25 in an away match against the New England Revolution. Union Omaha are the new guys in town, and the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on their season. They feel like their squad is filled with talent from top to bottom, and they have high expectations.
“It’s important to know that we’re not coming in just to make up the numbers,” said Matt Homonoff, Union Omaha’s chief operating officer. “This team was built to win from day one. We absolutely intend on playing in the (championship) game.”
Union midfielder Kobe Perez said teams in a new league usually struggle their first year, but after playing in preseason games, he sees something different with his team.
“I think we have a really, really good shot at being able to compete for the title,” Perez said.
Tyler David, another midfielder for Union Omaha, sees the same thing.
“If we don’t make it to the championship, I honestly think it’s a disappointment with the talent we have and the coaching staff we have,” David said.
Homonoff was the general manager of the Des Moines Menace the past five seasons. His team made the USL League Two playoffs in every one of those years.
“The opportunity to join Union Omaha as they started life as a professional team was the ultimate move in terms of what I was looking for,” Homonoff said.
Union Omaha was only a couple of weeks away from matches when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in middle March. Homonoff said the club will implement safety measures for fans when the club has their first home match August 1. Tickets for upcoming matches are available on Union Omaha’s website and capacity will be just under 40%.
“We are socially distancing fans in our seating meaning you have to have a full six feet between groups of eight,” Homonoff said. “Disinfecting, sanitizing, making sure everything is as clean and usable for our fans as possible.”
Perez hopes there are at least some fans at the games.
“One hundred percent, it would affect us,” Perez said. “It’s a different atmosphere when fans are around.”
David says fans or no fans, his team has to be ready to come to work.
“Especially in Omaha, we have a great backing and a great fan base,” David said. “At the end of the day, playing and ultimately winning is the most important thing.”
Union Omaha started full scrimmages only two weeks ago. Perez said the team struggled in the spring, but they all felt a sense of relief when they started training again.
“It (COVID-19) put a halt to our momentum at the start of the season, but I think we can pick it back up,” Perez said.
Homonoff said he is concerned about whether they will get the entire season in. He remains confident they will make it work.
“I think anyone in a position of responsibility and accountability has to be concerned with the spikes in numbers,” Homonoff said. “We’re preparing for every possible eventuality…I am as confident as possible that we’ll get this season in with the understanding that there are still a lot of unknowns out there. While we certainly hope that no one else gets sick, we understand that we may have to make some tough decisions.”
Perez and David aren’t really concerned about getting COVID-19 from other players.
“When we’re on the field, playing the game, I’m not thinking about that at all,” Perez said.
“We’ve been smart and intelligent (with protocols), and we’re just excited to play,” David said.
Union Omaha has players from all around the world. From Ghana and Spain to Argentina and Iowa, the club has plenty of diversity. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one player has not been able to return to the United States.
“Tobias Otiendo, who is a Kenyan midfielder that we signed over the winter, was never able to get his visa finalized,” Homonoff said. “He remains in Nairobi. We’re hopeful that his visa is finalized soon and able to join us here in Omaha..It’s been frustrating for sure but with embassy closures and restrictions, it is certainly understandable.”
Jay Mims is Union Omaha’s head coach. He was the first men’s soccer head coach at UNO, from 2011-2018. His team won the Summit League Men’s Soccer Tournament in 2017 and reached the NCAA tournament.
“If I could only use one word (to describe Mims), I would say professional,” Homonoff said. “Coach Mims is the consummate professional. He has incredibly high standards, but he is also incredibly empathetic and understanding of what the players are going to. He gets it in every way.”
Mims says most teams reflect their head coach’s personality and style.
“You’ve got to love what you do,” he said. “Have a passion for it and an energy for it, and a drive to improve. You’ll see that in our players, and you’ll see that in me. We do this because we love it. I don’t think of it as a job… I look at it as something I enjoy doing, love doing, and it’s fun doing.”
David said Mims did a great job of bringing in hardworking players.
“We have a really young team,” David said. For people watching, you can expect a blue collar team. Do the dirty work. Be physical… I can see us as a really hard working, defensive team”
Perez is a big fan of Mims style of play and is looking forward to being in his system.
“We’re looking to play ‘keep the ball, possess the ball,’ Perez said. “We’re looking to make it a good-looking game of soccer. One that fans will enjoy. Not just kick it up the field and chase after it. Mims did a great job of bringing in guys who know how to play the game.”
Perez said his ideal play would be where everyone touches the ball, and they slowly move their way up the field and score a goal rather than launch shots from distance.
Mims said when you are at the professional level, style of play doesn’t matter as much as just finding ways to win.
“That’s my goal for those guys,” Mims said. “To have a winning team and a team that develops and gets a lot better individually, which will make our team better.”
Union Omaha plays its matches in Werner Park near Papillion, which is home to the Omaha Storm Chasers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The Storm Chasers are run by the same ownership group as Union Omaha.
The league considers Forward Madison FC from Wisconsin as Union Omaha’s rival.
Forward Madison FC is entering its second year in USL League One. They reached the semifinals in last year’s playoffs. Homonoff’s hope is that Union Omaha can create an atmosphere similar to Forward Madison FC.
“We are anxious to have a young, energetic, socially and ethnically diverse crowd here in Werner Park, so I would absolutely encourage your readers and watchers to do just that,” Homonoff said.
At this point, Perez and his teammates are just waiting for the season to get started.
“We have been doing everything we need to be doing to get ready for the season,” Perez said. “We want everyone in Omaha to know we are wanting to bring a championship to the city.”