Top of the hill: Men’s soccer preview

Photo courtesy of UNO Communications
The UNO men’s soccer team celebrates after winning the first conference championship in UNO D-I history
Jack Hoover

The Omaha men’s soccer team will have some big shoes to fill this season.

Last year’s Maverick team was the most successful in program history. For the first time ever, Omaha won the Summit League title and appeared in the NCAA soccer championship tournament. This success came through the hard work of both the team’s senior leaders and their mastermind coach. However, this year, Omaha will have to replace both of those components.

Jason Mims, previously the only head coach to ever manage the Mavericks, left in the spring to work on the professional side with Real Salt Lake. Fortunately, the Mavericks can consider themselves to be extremely lucky.

Bob Warming, a long time college coach with experience at Penn State and Creighton, was announced as the head coach last spring. He is the second winningest active coach in Division I soccer and has led not one, but two teams to the NCAA College Cup.

While the Mavericks’ head coaching position is undoubtedly in good hands, there are a few more shoes to be filled on the field.

Last year’s team featured a senior starter at almost every key position. Gone are keeper Joseph Ghitis, defender Jacob Weiler, midfielder Xavier Gomez, and forward Emmanuel Hamzat, to name only a few. To make things even more difficult, last year’s leading goal scorer Elvir Ibisevic, who would have been a junior, left the team to play professionally in Slovenia.

While these losses will surely hurt the Mavericks this year, there is still lots of talent left on the squad. There are several players who are worth a close watch this year.

Sophomore Diego Gutierrez finished his high school career as Nebraska’s all-time-leading goal scorer, scoring a remarkable 112 goals. Despite this prolific output, Gutierrez was never really given many opportunities to play Division I soccer. In fact, he joined the Maverick team only after completing a tryout and then walking on to the team. Now he might be one of the Maverick’s most dynamic players.

Look for Gutierrez to fill the scoring void that was left by last year’s leading goal scorers, Hamzat and Ibisevic. With the ability to finish – and also create chances for others – Gutierrez could be the one filling up the stat sheet this year.

And you may not see senior Cole Nelson’s name on the stat sheet as much, but the Omaha captain’s influence will be incredibly invaluable.

While playing primarily as a center midfielder, no Omaha player has logged as many minutes as Nelson. Now with the graduation of midfielder maestro Xavier Gomez, the responsibility on Nelson to control the midfield (and to lead the team by example on and off the pitch) will somehow increase even more.

The Bob Warming Era will kick off with an exhibition match against cross-town rivals Creighton on August 11. Last year’s game against Creighton broke the attendance record for Omaha Maverick soccer, with 4,986 fans showing up to watch the Dodge Street Derby. This year’s contest will be must-see soccer and could draw just as many.

Perhaps the most important regular season game for the Mavericks will be a home match against Summit foe Denver University. As the two likely favorites for the league crown, home field advantage could be the difference maker in deciding the Summit League regular season conference champion.

In addition to Denver, matches against Clemson, SMU, and Cal State Fullerton highlight the schedule. All three teams made the NCAA soccer championship field last year, and have the potential to be just as good this year.

In all, the new-look Omaha team won’t necessarily have it easy this year. Replacing the players and coach from last year will be a tough task. However, with Coach Warming at the helm, and an array of talent on the field, success should not be hard to come by.

This team has every right to assume they can build on and surpass the achievements of last year.