Union Omaha ignited its debut U.S. Open Cup campaign with a bang on Tuesday night, beating Chicago Fire FC of Major League Soccer on a last-gasp equalizing goal in extra time and a penalty shootout win.
The historic match, played at Chicago’s Soldier Field, marked the first-ever competitive meeting between teams competing in USL League One and Major League Soccer – the cancellations of the Open Cup due to COVID-19 since League One’s had previously made it impossible since League One’s foundation in 2019.
Unfazed by the occasion, the Owls began the match with a decent spell of possession, wading into the contest and feeling out the Chicago Fire squad. The hosts responded with a crunching tackle on midfielder Joe Brito, drawing the first yellow card of the night only seven minutes in.
Rashid Nuhu, in goal for Union Omaha, wasn’t called into action for the first time until the 13th minute, when he pounced on a low, driven strike across his body. Throughout normal time, extra time and beyond, Nuhu would prove to be a critical element to his team’s success.
In the 20th minute, Chicago Fire made the hearts of the Union Omaha traveling support jump when a shot pinged off the crossbar following a threatening corner kick. Though not dominating possession, the Owls stuck strong for the remainder of the first half, which was capped off by two late chances created by Ryen Jiba and Joe Brito, respectively.
Coach Jay Mims’ first roll of the dice came at halftime, when he introduced newly-signed University of Nebraska-Omaha Men’s Soccer standouts Hugo Kametani and Eddie Gordon to the match. In the 51st minute, the Owls were hit with the first blow: a penalty kick converted by Fire. A scrappy period followed, marked by two more Omaha yellow cards and a couple additional substitutions.
The night’s first highlight came in the 68th minute when forward Noe Meza put his laces through a bouncing ball to power it past the Fire goalkeeper, tying the match 1-1 – it was his first goal as a professional. The Owls registered a few more shots on target and executed some last-ditch defensive clearances late in normal time to send the match to a 30-minute extra time period.
Dangerous strikes by Kametani and Emir Alihodžić brought two diving saves from the Chicago keeper, but the match would stay level until the 114th minute. It was a second penalty kick goal for Chicago’s new signing from the German Bundesliga, Rafa Czichos, after his teammate was brought down in the penalty area. With just minutes to play in extra time, the Owls managed to keep the ball, keep their heads and create one more scoring chance. A stretching Kametani crossed to Dion Acoff, who laid it off for center back Alex Touche to power home, tying the match 2-2 in the 122nd minute.
The penalty shootout that followed was Union Omaha’s first in competitive play, but the kick takers didn’t show it. After Chicago’s first penalty by Kacper Przybylko rattled the crossbar, penalties by Omaha’s Kametani, Alihodžić, Daltyn Knutson and Giovanni Montesdeoca found the back of the net. A pivotal moment in the match was provided by Nuhu in net as he flew to his left to save Chicago’s sixth penalty kick, setting the stage for Dion Acoff to make Open Cup history. The experienced veteran and former Creighton University star calmly slotted in his penalty, sending his teammates sprinting across the Soldier Field grass to meet him.
After taking down USL League Two’s Des Moines Menace in the second round and Chicago Fire in the third, Union Omaha now enters the round of 32 with the official draw to be held on Friday, April 22. Ticketing details will follow should Omaha be drawn into a hosting position.
The home opener for the defending USL League One Champions at Werner Park is set for April 23 vs. USL1 newcomer Central Valley Fuego FC. Season tickets and undated voucher packs for the 2022 season are currently available via UnionOmaha.com or the Werner Park Ticket Office by calling 402-738-5100.