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SOCCER

Pro soccer is coming to Omaha: New team will begin play at Werner Park in 2020

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Professional soccer is coming to Omaha in 2020.

Officials from the United Soccer League came to town Wednesday to announce that Gary Green, owner of the Omaha Storm Chasers minor league baseball team, has been awarded a franchise in USL League One. The team will begin play at Werner Park in March 2020.

USL League One Senior Vice President Steven Short joined Green; Dan Houghton, a local investor and part owner; and Chasers General Manager Martie Cordaro at Werner Park on Wednesday to announce the team. They also announced the team’s first coach: Jason Mims, the former head soccer coach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The team will play a 28-game season from March to October, with its 14 home games at Werner Park. The team will work around the Storm Chasers’ schedule. Most tickets will be priced between $15 and $22. Season tickets are available now with a $30 deposit.

The field will run from the third-base dugout to right field, which will need to be modified to accommodate corner kicks. The ballpark also will add locker rooms and offices.

A retractable pitching mound will be installed this fall. The grounds crew then will cover the diamond with grass for soccer matches.

The cost of improvements to the stadium is estimated at $2.2 million, which initially will be funded by Sarpy County but will be repaid by the team through increased rent.

A team name, colors, logo and other information will be announced later. The team plans to solicit community input through such forums as town halls, online polls and workshops. The intention is to finalize the team’s brand by late summer. Fans are directed to OmahaProSoccer.com for more details.

“The Omaha soccer community has been yearning for a team to call their own and, more importantly, deserve a team to call their own,” Green said. “The USL’s vision to grow the beautiful game has shifted the dynamics of cities and communities across the country, creating an energy and passion that these communities have never seen before. Like other USL cities, Omaha metro and Sarpy County will experience this same shift.”

The club is being led by Cordaro as president and general manager. He will continue in the same role with the Storm Chasers. The team has hired Matthew Homonoff as chief operating officer. Homonoff recently served as general manager of the USL League Two Des Moines Menace and spent six years with the Major League Soccer team DC United.

Mims was the first Division I soccer coach at UNO, leading the team from 2011 to 2017 after 10 years as a Creighton assistant. He most recently served as director of scouting for Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake Academy and assistant coach for its U19 and U17 teams.

USL League One began its inaugural season March 29 with 10 teams. It has plans to expand to 24 teams by 2021, and already has announced future clubs in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York. The closest team to Omaha is in Madison, Wisconsin.

The league is sanctioned at the Division 3 level by the U.S. Soccer Federation, two tiers below Major League Soccer and one below the USL Championship. All of its regular-season and postseason games are broadcast on ESPN+, a subscription-based streaming service.

Green said the league was a “perfect fit” and that if crowd size and sponsorship grow large enough, he would consider moving the team into the USL Championship.

Given its Division 3 sanctioning, League One may sound confusing, but it’s consistent with a naming tradition in the United Kingdom. The United Soccer League rebranded each of its three leagues beginning this season.

In England, the first through fourth divisions are known respectively as the Premier League, the Championship, League One and League Two. Similarly, the top U.S. league is MLS, followed by USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two.

In England, teams either advance or are demoted the next season based on performance. That promotion/relegation system isn’t yet being used in America, but the USL’s ownership of leagues in tiers two, three and four means implementing a similar system could be possible once it fills out its leagues, Short said. If that happens, Omaha’s team could play its way into the second division.

Last year, an amateur soccer team, Bugeaters FC, launched in Lincoln. It moved to Omaha for the 2019 season. It plays games at Creighton University’s Morrison Stadium against fourth-division competition in the upstart Great Plains Premier League.

Omaha previously had two soccer teams that played at lower levels — one amateur and one indoor team. Each folded within a few years because of poor attendance or profitability.

The amateur Omaha Flames (1996-98) and the pro Omaha Vipers (2010-11) played in lower levels of U.S. Soccer, and both played at least half of their seasons indoors. The Flames drew more than 3,000 per game to the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum over two seasons, and the Vipers drew about 2,700 per game during their lone season at the Civic Auditorium.

Werner Park has a capacity of 9,023 with 6,434 permanent seats. Two USL League One teams play in minor league stadiums.

Green said his team spoke with representatives at each suitable stadium around the metro area, and none wanted to or was able to house a full-time professional soccer team as well as Werner Park could.

“I know there are going to be people out there who say ‘Why not Morrison, it’s downtown and it’s a gem?’” Green said. ‘I understand completely. I challenge the people who will be on social media to come out here and give us a chance to see that we’re running this like a soccer stadium.”

The World-Herald sat down with Green, Cordaro, Chief Operating Officer Matthew Homonoff, Short and Mims ahead of the launch. Below are some highlights from that conversation.

» Green said he aspires to do to Omaha’s soccer culture what Sporting Kansas City did in its metropolitan area.

» Green initially wanted to affiliate with an MLS club, but changed his mind. As an independent team, he likes that Omaha will have full control over its roster.

» UNO coach Bob Warming wrote Green unsolicited to endorse Mims as a coaching candidate, writing, in part: “There is only one man who ticks all the boxes and understands and has accomplished the daunting task of starting a top-level soccer program in Omaha. He simply knows the club youth structure in Omaha better than anybody in the country.”

» Mims said the soccer culture has come a long way since he arrived almost two decades ago, when kids were choosing weird jersey numbers for a soccer player, like 94, based on their favorite Husker football players.

» The team will base its style of play on the players it acquires, which will skew local and should include a mix of long-term players and developmental players who will advance to higher levels.

» Open tryouts will be held at least once, with a date to be determined.

» Critics have told Green he’s missing the millennial market by locating in Sarpy County. But he argued otherwise, saying plenty of young families are moving into Sarpy County and west Omaha.

» Werner Park has hosted one soccer game before, a September 2011 match between Mercer and UNO, then coached by Mims.

» The team is trying to schedule exhibition matches with Mexican teams, but no games are ready to be announced.

» Short, from the league office, said an Omaha team will succeed by embracing authenticity to the Omaha area and listening to fans.

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