It was a duel of the debutantes as Union Omaha and Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC fought for survival in their first appearance in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Both clubs shocked the soccer community by upsetting an MLS club on the road in Round 3, but Wednesday night was all about two USL League One clubs going head-to-head. After 90 minutes, Union Omaha proved to be the better side with a 2-0 victory.
Fans, all 1,931 of them, made their way into Al F. Caniglia Field, located on the campus of University of Nebraska-Omaha, to see the first-ever meeting between the two clubs. Not only was this the first time that Union Omaha and Northern Colorado had ever faced one another, this was also the first time that Union Omaha had ever played a match at Caniglia Field. With other League One foes matching up against MLS clubs in Round 4, this matchup guaranteed the presence of a USL League One (Division 3 pro) club in Round 5 of the US Open Cup.
If there were any assumptions of pleasantries to be exchanged between the clubs, the first ten seconds of the match quashed any and all notions of that happening. With one of the first challenges of play, Northern Colorado left midfielder Jerry Desdunes had already earned a yellow card.
There were several player matchups that provided entertainment for fans in the stadium, as Desdunes and Union Omaha right back Isaac Bawa had a few good battles in the corner. Another noteworthy matchup was between Northern Colorado centerback Leo Folla and Union Omaha right midfielder Kemal Malcolm. The differences in style weren’t singularly apparent under the microscope, though.
Throughout the first half, Northern Colorado worked hard to build attacks up their attacking right sideline. Each opportunity that the Hailstorm took allowed Union Omaha to catch on to their preferred route of attack, shift their personnel, force numbers into a small area, and create turnovers. Hailstorm right back Nortei Nortey was routinely seen pressing high up the field, overlapping teammate Daniel Scally and trying to open up passing lanes. With the combined effort of Union Omaha’s highly-active forwards, Noe Meza and Hugo Kametani, the Owls were able to pressure early and high, disrupting the flow of traffic from their opposition. To alleviate this pressure, Northern Colorado would try to swing the ball swiftly to the left sideline and try to get Desdunes toward the corner, but the feed could never quite connect with the player in the attacking third.
With 17 fouls called against Northern Colorado in the first half, Union Omaha was gifted plenty of opportunities to execute their set pieces. In the 21st minute of play, Union Omaha center midfielder JP Scearce and fans alike were sure that the deadlock had been broken when Scearce was able to connect with a set piece and head the ball into the net, but it was ruled offside by the assistant referee. The live play looked innocent enough, but the replay proved the referee’s better judgement.
In direct contrast to Northern Colorado’s style, Union Omaha was levying long, direct balls to the frontline over and over. There was one possession from the Owls, in the 24th minute, where they were trying to lull Hailstorm into the comforts of a possession-based attack, but that was quickly changed with a deep ball to Malcolm in the attacking third.
The Northern Colorado defense was woken up with a case of whiplash, but adjusted well to quell the instantaneous threat. The next minute, Malcolm was able to threaten the Northern Colorado goal, after stealing the ball from Folla before he could fully settle the ball. When Malcolm turned toward goal, he looked to take a very low-percentage shot, which Hailstorm goalkeeper Thomas Olsen was able to easily tap over the crossbar.
There were a couple of other chances right before halftime, including a good chance on goal from Union Omaha centerback Alex Touche during a set piece, but both sides would have to wait until the second half before the scoreline would be adjusted.
Like the first half, the second started with immediate action, only it wasn’t a yellow card to get things going. In the 47th minute, Folla tried to evade the high pressure from Malcolm by passing the ball to teammate Rob Cornwall, but showcased an errant pass, which Kametani was able to jump on. After attracting enough attention outside the penalty area, he laid the ball off to his right, where Malcolm was approaching. Malcolm took a couple of touches inside the box, but showed great awareness to find Meza standing at the top of the penalty arc. The pass to Meza allowed him to execute good technique in attacking the ball and one-touched the shot on frame. Olsen was able to get horizontal for the block, but couldn’t quite make enough contact with the ball to keep it out of the net. This goal was the first time that Northern Colorado had ever surrendered the first goal in a match.
“We just pressure and pressure and pressure on them,” said Union Omaha head coach Jay Mims. “What a wonderful goal scored early to get the crowd in it. What a special crowd tonight. Thanks to everyone that came out. It was loud, they were energetic, it was fun.
Just over ten minutes later, Union Omaha would strike again.
In the 58th minute, goalkeeper Olsen made a poor clearance toward midfield, off to his right. Union Omaha captain not only intercepted the ball, but was able to jumpstart the offensive opportunity with a header to his teammate, Kametani. After a series of tight-knit passing among Doyle, Meza, and Joe Brito, Doyle was able to sneak past the entire Hailstorm defense and set himself up for a one-on-one with Olsen. As the goalkeeper slid low on the ground to tackle Doyle, he was able to coolly chip the ball just high enough to clear Olsen’s legs. The ball tucked itself inside the far post and suddenly the Owls had a two goal insurance policy.
“The second half, I thought it was incredible,” said Mims. “I thought it was a great effort by the guys. That was a good team they just played. Hats off to Colorado. You can see why they’ve won some games in this cup. Good, good team, but our guys were excellent in the second half. It was awesome.”
The remaining half hour was a textbook case of what a team does when it has the lead. For the next 30 minutes, the Owls possessed the ball, occupied the corners, and delayed putting the ball back in play. The tactics worked, as Union Omaha players and fans joined together in celebrating the victory at the final whistle.
With losses from South Georgia Tormenta FC, Richmond Kickers, and Northern Colorado, Union Omaha guaranteed that one USL League One team would being represented in the Round of 16. As an additional bonus, with California United Strikers losing their match against the LA Galaxy, Union Omaha stood alone as the only Division 3 club left in the tournament, a feat which is rewarded with $25,000 in prize money.
After suffering their first shutout loss in the club’s brief history, Northern Colorado exits the Open Cup and shifts their focus to league play, which restarts on Wednesday, May 18 and a visit to the Charlotte Independence.
Union Omaha will be watching the US Open Cup draw on Thursday evening, then shift their attention to a road match against Richmond Kickers on Saturday, May 14.
“For tonight, we’ll celebrate. These games aren’t easy,” said Mims. “We don’t take it for granted. That’s for sure. We’re so happy that we’re in the last 16 now. try to keep it going.”