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SOCCER

Union Omaha aims to upset a third MLS team when Owls take on Sporting KC

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First it was the Chicago Fire. Then it was Minnesota United. And Wednesday, Sporting Kansas City could be next.

Union Omaha seeks its third victory over a Major League Soccer opponent in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where the next stop is a quarterfinal match at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. The Owls made history in April against the Fire, becoming the first USL League One team to defeat an MLS side in U.S Open Cup play.

If it wins the tournament, Union Omaha qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, a club competition featuring teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The champion also wins $300,000 in prize money. The championship match is two wins away, but the focus is Wednesday’s quarterfinal.

Four-time U.S Open Cup champion Sporting KC enters the game tied for 12th in the MLS’ Western Conference, earning a 2-1 win at Nashville SC on Sunday. The 2021 Western Conference semifinalists are 4-9-4.

“All the pressure is on (Sporting KC),” Union Omaha coach Jay Mims said. “They’ve been there. They’re the experienced team. They have the resources, they have the money.”

This will be Sporting KC’s third match of the competition as it entered in the round of 32, defeating FC Dallas 4-2. In the round of 16, it beat the Houston Dynamo 2-1 after trailing at halftime.

Union Omaha is ninth in the USL League One standings, five points behind first place. The third-year club won the 2021 USL League One championship and was runner-up in 2020. It comes off a 2-0 loss to the Greenville Triumph.

The Owls are the only team from USL League One — two divisions below MLS — remaining in the U.S. Open Cup. This is the furthest any USL League One team has advanced in the competition’s history. And of the other seven quarterfinalists, six are from MLS, while Sacramento Republic FC comes from USL Championship, the division above USL League One.

“You have to believe at this stage — quarterfinals, Open Cup," Mims said. "If you don’t have belief, then you shouldn’t be on the field, and our guys definitely believe.”

Winning on the road in the competition isn’t unfamiliar for the Owls, who picked up wins at Chicago’s Soldier Field and Minnesota’s Allianz Field. In April, the Owls had to come from behind twice against the Fire, once in regulation and again in overtime — a 122nd-minute goal to send the game to penalty kicks.

And Wednesday, Union Omaha travels to one of the best soccer environments in the U.S. Kansas City, Missouri, was named a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The Owls will have support, too; Mims predicted that more than 1,000 fans will make the drive down Interstate 29. He estimated that there were about 350 for the game in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In that game, the Owls conceded just six minutes in but leveled the game at 1-1 in first-half stoppage time. In the 51st minute, Joe Brito scored the game-winner — and his first career professional goal — with a chested-down volley gifted as result of a misplayed clearance by Minnesota United.

In both upsets, the Owls have capitalized on their few chances with the ball. Against Chicago, they possessed the ball for 35% of the time, notching six shots on goal — equal to the Fire. Those numbers dropped to 27% and four, respectively, against Minnesota, which doubled the number of total shots Union Omaha attempted (16-8).

But in both games, the Owls took advantage of mistakes by their opponents. The first equalizing goal against Chicago was set up by a poor clearance by the Fire defense. And to level the game against Minnesota, no defender contested JP Scearce for a header off a goal kick. It allowed Scearce to head the ball into the path of Hugo Kametani, who slotted it in at the near post.

Union Omaha will have to be “close to perfect” against Sporting KC, which is more resourced and experienced, Mims said.

Mims said after the upset over Minnesota the team started to realize how significant the run has been, especially with additional media attention. He added that the gap between Cup games has allowed for the players to let it sink in.

“I think they know it’s a huge moment,” Mims said. “It’s unprecedented. No one’s ever done it. We’re doing some stuff that’s history.”

Mims said he knows Sporting KC can punish his team for any mistakes it makes. But he feels the previous upsets can benefit the Owls for Wednesday’s game.

“It will be hard and difficult,” Mims said. “But since they’ve done it a couple of times, I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”

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