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Union Omaha, New Mexico United, and the U.S. Open Cup effect

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 05/07/24, 5:57PM EDT


As clubs prepare to host MLS opponents for first time, fans reflect on how past runs have impacted growth, visibility

Union Omaha players applaud their supporters after the end of their run to the Quarterfinals in the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against Sporting Kansas City.

Wherever you’re watching from, you never forget your first Cupset.

For Union Omaha fan and Parliament member Katherine Rzonca, as she attended the club’s watch party for a road clash with Chicago Fire FC two years ago, it was hardly fathomable.

“The biggest thing I remember about being there, surrounded by all the fans, a lot of my friends, it was just almost disbelief,” Rzonca told recently. “We went into that game… I don't want to say expecting to lose, but you know you’re going as the underdog. You’re expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

“The whole time, I’ve got to be very honest, I felt like, ‘Oh. Oh my gosh, we’re keeping up with them. Oh my God, this thing is going into penalty kicks. Holy crap.’ And then getting the final score and just seeing it, ‘Oh, my God, we actually won. What the hell.’ It was a surreal moment.”

Since it arrived in USL League One, Union Omaha has become accustomed to success. In its abbreviated inaugural season in 2020 it advanced to the League One Final. The following year it claimed both the Players’ Shield and League One title and had five players selected to the All-League Team.

While playing a full season less than the league’s originals, it already ranks second in League One history with 56 wins across the regular season and playoffs, compiling a winning percentage of 49.1 percent.

But for Rzonca and fellow fan Braedon Johnson, the Open Cup run in which the side defeated the Fire and Minnesota United FC before eventually falling to Sporting Kansas City in the Quarterfinals brought a different spotlight to the nascent club, helping raise awareness of what was happening across the city and region.

Union Omaha's players celebrate after taking victory on the road at Minnesota United FC in the 2022 U.S. Open Cup. | Photo courtesy Union Omaha

“At the time, I was towards the end of my senior in high school,” said Johnson. “Everyone always knew that I was a soccer fan. A couple of them were soccer fans themselves too, but they didn't really pay attention to it. But then once Chicago was beaten and then we eventually played Minnesota United, all that stuff, that really sent it up to have not just local news, you have national news, and even people that you wouldn’t even expect to cover it within the local sphere.”

“I was on the board of our supporters’ group,” added Roncza, “and we had a massive influx of people who were super-interested in Omaha and enjoying our supporters’ group and things like that. All because of that attention we’re getting from meeting sides like Chicago, Minnesota.”


For new clubs that appear each year in the professional landscape, and the core supporters that embrace them from the start, this is the other Magic of the Cup.

The week-in and week-out regularity of competing for silverware in the USL Championship, USL League One and other lower division leagues is one thing, but the opportunity to take on top-flight opposition provides an entry point for new fans to jump on board.

For New Mexico United fan Steve Kraemer, the same applied during United’s run to the Quarterfinals in its inaugural season in 2019. The club received national headlines after victories against the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas.

“It was a little bit of a perfect storm,” said Kraemer. “It was new organization, they did a really good job of getting the community behind it even before the Open Cup run started, and then it’s kind of like pouring gasoline on a fire. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Wait a minute, we just beat an MLS team?’ The diehard fan was always going to be a supporter, because they love soccer. They were excited to have a team. But then it just kind of snowballed. … It just drew the whole community together where we were packing Isotopes Park pretty much every game. It was incredible.”

New Mexico United's inaugural season saw the side capture the imagination of the city and the country with a run to the Quarterfinals of the Open Cup.

Kraemer has his own history with the Open Cup. Three decades ago he played in the USL and got to compete in the tournament against the likes of former United States internationals Alexi Lalas and Kyle Martino, among others.

Five years ago, he was in the stands at Dicks’ Sporting Goods Park when New Mexico first took on an MLS opponent in the Colorado Rapids. He remembers the energy that surrounded the supporters that made the trip north and how it helped created a buzz around the club itself.

“We kind of took over the stadium in a way in terms of the voice and the passion,” he said. “You know, the Colorado fans were kind of just sitting there. When they took the lead, they got loud, but we were loud the whole time. We were singing and chanting and never really sat down. Once we once we won that thing, it was crazy.”


With victories against Chicago and Minnesota, Union Omaha was pushed further into the spotlight.

The side drew its closest potential opponent from the top-flight in Sporting Kansas City. While small groups of fans had headed on the road previously, this presented just a three-hour drive from Omaha and the opportunity for Union’s fans to make their presence felt, and they grasped it.

“I knew beforehand that we were probably coming close to 700, 800 people in the section,” said Johnson. “What I didn’t expect pregame was seeing so many people that were here outside the stadium. I expected it inside the stadium. We were going around Kansas City and whatnot, stopping by our favorite spots, and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s a person we’ve never seen before wearing Union Omaha gear.’”

With a large proportion of the fans decked out in luminous yellow t-shirts, Omaha’s fans were a visible presence for the viewer’s tuning in to watch the game. They also proved an audible one within Children’s Mercy Park.

“We did a cross-stadium chant – ‘Union’ ‘Omaha’ – back and forth,” said Roncza. “Being able to do that with the two different sections that were Omaha fans and hearing an echo throughout the stadium? I get chills thinking about it still.”

Union Omaha fans at the club's contest against Sporting Kansas City in the Quarterfinals of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup.

For New Mexico, the journey to a Quarterfinal at Minnesota United’s Allianz Field was much longer, but for the club and its partners it offered another chance at publicity. In a partnership with First Financial Credit Union, the club chartered a plane for fans to attend the game at a discounted rate and posted throughout the experience on its social media channels.

“I’ve never heard of that happening in the United States, at any level,” said Kraemer. “When First Financial said, ‘you know, we’re going to get a plane and we’re going to take people to Minnesota,’ I was like, ‘What is going on? This is amazing.’ That can only happen if the entire community is behind it.”

For both clubs, the roads would end there. New Mexico grabbed an early lead through Santi Moar, giving the visiting fans hope another upset was on the cards before Minnesota clicked into gear and advanced comfortably. Omaha saw its dream come to an end in similar fashion.

New Mexico United supporters at the club's contest against Minnesota United FC in the Quarterfinals of the 2019 U.S. Open Cup. | Photo courtesy Minnesota United FC

For both sets of supporters, however, by the end there was nothing but gratitude for the journey the clubs had taken them on.

“After the game I was reflecting on how far we came,” said Roncza. “We knew it was going to end eventually, but just looking back and being like ‘Wow, we actually did that. We beat these two big teams.’

“I think for me I was just looking back and being incredibly grateful. It helped me realize this club truly is something special to not only the fans, not only to the players, but to the city.”

“We were really proud of New Mexico and ourselves in a way,” said Kraemer. “We showed up and again, we were loud. I mean, we were going the entire game. We were down 5-1, 6-1, and we were still going, the drums never stopped. The chanting never stopped. We were just there to show our support for the team and how far they’d come.”


This week brings a first for both Union Omaha and New Mexico United. After traveling around the country in pursuit of Open Cup upsets, each side will host MLS opposition for the first time in the Round of 32 on Wednesday night.

For Omaha, it’s a rematch from two seasons ago against Sporting Kansas City and another chance to claim the sporting spotlight in the city. If things go to plan, regardless of the result, the hope for the hardcore support is the contest will add to the awareness of the club’s quality within the city.

“We’re kind of knee deep right now, preparing our supporters section for the game and tailgating and everything like that,” said Roncza. “But the club also has a massive, massive deal on our hands when it comes to just preparing the city for a club like Sporting Kansas City to come up. It’s two-and-a-half hours from Omaha, so we should have a few 1000s out on a weeknight.

“I really think it’s great, for sure, to put Union Omaha on the map. This is the first time an MLS team is playing in Omaha, which is insane to think about. But I think it’s also a good opportunity for those people who might be fans of Sporting Kansas City here in Omaha, they might not really know Union Omaha or have seen us play to this point in time, maybe they’ll like coming to watch us, and think about maybe coming out to a few games.”

For New Mexico, Real Salt Lake will be the visitor at Isotopes Park where the hosts will be hoping to spring another surprise while giving a national audience a look at one of the Championship’s most fervent atmospheres.

“I’m taking my entire staff to the game, because I want them to be at that game,” said Kraemer, who runs his own recreational soccer center in the city. “I want as many people as I know to go to that game, so I’m doing everything I can within my power to get people there. I think that it’s going to be a really amazing energy, so I’m super excited about it.”

New Mexico United's proposed soccer-specific venue at Balloon Fiesta Park.

For both clubs, Wednesday night will be historic. What’s coming in the next few years is set to be transformative with each club aiming to open its own soccer-specific stadium.

New Mexico’s development proposed at Balloon Fiesta Park recently acquired approval from the city’s Environmental Planning Commission. For Kraemer, it would cement United’s position in the community and highlight soccer’s rise around the country.

“I think it would legitimize that soccer is here, and soccer is going to be a big part of the future of not only New Mexico, but the country in general,” he said. “I think that it will be a benefit to our community, just in the sense that we will have we will have done something groundbreaking for our state. … Hopefully we get a women's team. I think that’s in the plans. I mean, that would be amazing.”

Omaha’s plan, meanwhile, would bring a new soccer-specific stadium to one of the most visible parts of the city and provide a backdrop for the club that fits the success it has already achieved on the field.

“If you are driving to downtown and you are staying at one of those hotels or doing anything from the airport, you’re going to see it,” said Johnson. “Especially if you are out of town or if you’re an away fan, it’ll be the very first thing you’ll see along with the rest of the city as well.”

Renderings of Union Omaha's proposed soccer-specific stadium in the city's downtown.

Before then, both sets of supporters are hoping for another night when the memories of celebrating a victory against a top-flight opponent.

If either accomplishes it, the memories will last a lifetime.

“Those are moments that are engraved in your brain forever,” said Roncza. “[Dion Acoff’s] celebration [against Chicago], the burrito slide from Minnesota, things like that. I can know exactly what I was doing when those details are happening, and still to this day I remember feeling the exhilarating feelings I was experiencing.”

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