When discussing the hotbeds of soccer in the US, Nebraska usually doesn’t enter the conversation.
But Jason Mims will tell you that when it comes to adult soccer in the state what’s been lacking is organization, not talent.
“No one ever thinks of Nebraska soccer as any good,” Mims said, “but there are some good players and good coaches.”
Thanks to Mims, some of the state’s top players will get the chance to show that on a national stage in the US Open Cup. He put together the 402 team, which is named after the area code for the eastern part of Nebraska.
“There’s so many good players around, and we always had guys playing in men’s leagues and pickup games and stuff, but we’ve never done anything officially organized,” said Mims, a former Saint Louis University player who is heading into his ninth season as an assistant coach for the Creighton men’s program — a regular in the Top-25 rankings each fall.
“I just figured this year was a good year to organize it, get the right players and kind of do something official.”
Most of the players on the 402 roster are former Creighton players who continue to live in the Omaha area, and several of them have been involved in professional soccer — including two players who were especially pleased to see the team drawn to play at the Minnesota Thunder of the USL First Division in a first-round match Tuesday night in Blaine, Minn.
One is forward Johnny Torres, who was a two-time national player of the year for the Bluejays and the fifth overall pick in the 1998 Major League Soccer College Draft by the New England Revolution.
Torres had 10 goals in 113 games in parts of five seasons in MLS, also spending time with the Miami Fusion and the Chicago Fire, before signing with the Thunder. The native of Colombia scored 19 goals in 47 matches for Minnesota over the 2002 and 2003 seasons, then headed to Milwaukee Wave United and scored 11 times in 2004.
Now 33, Torres is back at Creighton as an assistant under coach Bob Warming along with Mims. He can still put the ball the net, as evidenced by his hat trick in 402’s 5-3 extra-time victory over Illinois’ RWB Adria — a US Open Cup qualifier the past two years — in the semifinals of the USASA Region II tournament last month.
“I think he’ll have some friends and family there, and I think he’s looking forward to getting back for a day and seeing his old place,” Mims said. “He’s excited because they finally got rid of that stupid track that was around the field (at the National Sports Center), that’s the first thing he said. … Hopefully, he’ll get one or two chances to put one away.”
It also will be a homecoming — and perhaps a farewell — for Andrei Gotsmanov.
The midfielder grew up in Eagan, Minn., and starred at Woodbury High School before a standout college career that started at St. John’s and finished at Creighton and has close connections to the Thunder.
Gotsmanov’s father, Sergei, played professionally in the Soviet Union, England and Germany and for the USSR and Belarus national teams before finishing his career with the Thunder in the late 1990s. Andrei’s older brother Sasha also played for the Thunder in 2006 and 2007 after a spending a season with the Colorado Rapids of MLS.
Andrei Gotsmanov was a first-team All-American for Creighton last fall and was a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, given to the country’s top player. He was picked by the Revolution with the No. 24 overall pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft, but it appears that his immediate future lies in Europe.
“He’s not going to go to New England, he’s going to go on trials in Sweden and Denmark in the next month or so,” Mims said. “This will kind of be his last game with us. I think he’s looking forward to getting back home and playing in that game in front of his dad and his family. It should be exciting for him.
“He’s a classy midfielder. I’ve been at Creighton nine years now, and he’s the best pure midfielder we’ve ever seen. He’s a pure No. 10. The kid is incredible. Hopefully, at some point he’ll get a chance to be a good professional and end up hopefully being on our national team. He’s that good.”
Also on the 402 roster are two former Creighton players who were drafted in 2008: midfielder Tony Schmitz was picked by DC United in the fourth round of the SuperDraft, while forward Tim Bohnenkamp was taken by San Jose in the second round of the supplemental draft that year.
Mims said the team draws from a player pool of about 30. But as is the case with many amateur teams, it’s usually pretty simple to make a game-day roster: “If they can make the game on that day, that’s who goes on the trip,” said Mims, who also plays left back in addition to managing the side.
The team has had varying success with its training sessions, having as many as 20 players show up and as few as four. Case in point: Mims, Torres and 402 forward Tim Walters, who completed his playing career at Creighton last fall and is now a student assistant coach in the program, recently spent 10 days in Peru on a trip with the Bluejays.
Needless to say, 402 didn’t train during that time.
“We hardly train at all, so we’re definitely not in shape,” Mims said. “But our guys are experienced enough to keep the ball and hold on to the ball, and that’s why we’ve been successful.
“I hope that we don’t get embarrassed up there. I don’t expect to win. Those guys are pros and they get paid and they train every day and they’re in midseason form right now … They should be able to beat us. So we don’t expect to win, but we do expect to compete. … I think we have a good enough group of guys that we can go up there and compete.”