“We’ve got nothing to lose,” said Conor Doyle, veteran captain of Union Omaha – the biggest little underdogs left in the 2022 Open Cup. “It’s that simple.”
The Owls are tucked in the Last Sixteen among some of the biggest names in American professional soccer, like four-time champions Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy. The Red Bulls and Inter Miami too. But the plucky Nebraska club from third-division USL League One, only in existence for two years, have nothing to fear according to their 30-year-old journeyman and team leader.
“It’s a win-win situation for us,” said Doyle, the only player with an Open Cup winner’s medal in the Union Omaha locker room. “We’re expected to lose (against MLS’ Minnesota United, Cup runners-up in 2019) and we can play loose and just try to enjoy it rather than be uptight and nervous.”
This isn’t just the canned patter of a long-time pro. It’s born of experience. Of a decade toiling away at every level of the American pro scene. Doyle’s Open Cup triumph came in 2013, during his MLS days, with three-time champions D.C. United.
Playing Both Sides
“I’ve been on both sides of it,” said Doyle, thinking back to when he won the oldest trophy in American soccer on the road against a powerful Real Salt Lake. “Our main focus was the Open Cup because things were not going our way in the league. We scored early in the Final and after that it was just kind of an onslaught. We had to hang on.
“And we did it [0-1], even with our backs to the wall,” added Doyle, scorer of one of two goals for the Union in their Round of 32 win over the Northern Colorado Hailstorm. “I can still remember how fun it was to lift that trophy in their stadium. When you win trophies, it means you’ve had success, and that was a memorable night.”
Doyle is humble. He won’t toot his own horn. But his presence in the Union Omaha locker room – a veteran who’s played abroad, internationally and in the U.S. top flight – is invaluable to a team with 14 players under the age of 25.
Born in Texas, Doyle was raised in the game. He smiles when describing early memories of being around his father’s training sessions. Ireland-born David Doyle was a legend of the indoor game, first shining with the Kansas City Comets before signing with the Dallas Sidekicks in 1991, the year of his son’s birth.
Early Start in the Arena
“I started playing soccer the minute I could walk,” laughed Doyle, outlining the influence of his father who scored 410 goals in 313 appearances for the Sidekicks and won three MISL championships. “I can still remember what it was like being around all that – it was the first 13 years of my life.”
In those early years, amid the thwack and thud of the dasher boards and the fast-paced arena game, Doyle began to develop as a striker. He stood out in the highly competitive Dallas-area youth academy system with his ability in the air and good pace. When he was 18, a full scholarship to high-power Creighton University was no surprise for the established U-20 U.S. National Team player.
But Derby County’s Nigel Clough came calling – and the pull of the professional game overseas in England’s second division was too much to resist. Doyle pulled up stakes after just seven appearances and three goals in a 2010 pre-season exhibition tournament for the Creighton Bluejays.
One of the Creighton coaches at the time was Jay Mims – Now the Union Omaha boss. He was sad to see a top prospect fly the nest, but he didn’t stand in his way.
“I improved exponentially as a player there,” said Doyle, who grew up a diehard Manchester United fan like his father, about his two seasons in England’s second division where he “knew right away” the level was a big step up. “The fan side and the playing side of it was just incredible, but I don’t know if I was mentally ready for that stage of soccer – it being just that big of a deal. The stress and the passion.”
Return to the States
He was loaned to D.C. United in the second half of the 2013 season and, after lending a major hand in the Open Cup triumph, the deal became permanent in 2014. After three seasons with the capital club, and with knee injuries taking a toll, Doyle embarked on a tour of every tier of the American professional game.
From the Colorado Rapids, he was loaned to the USL Championship’s Colorado Springs Switchbacks. He lined up in the now-defunct NASL with the Jacksonville Armada and (the also now-defunct) Puerto Rico FC – where long road trips from the Caribbean to Edmonton and Calgary were “a nightmare.”
But there was a homecoming ahead in 2021. An opportunity at Union Omaha meant a chance to play, once again, for Coach Mims. That same man who saw Doyle’s talent and brought him to Creighton all those years before.
“Conor is a great player and an even better person,” said Mims, an avowed admirer of his captain’s qualities. “He leads by example every day with such great humility.”
“It was awesome when we won the championship [USL League One in 2021],” said Doyle, recalling the national title the Owls scooped in their first year of operation. “I went up to Jay [Mims] and said it’s great we’re finally able to bring a championship to Omaha. It’s just come full circle. And being able to do what I’m doing now with him is pretty special.”
Man in the Middle
Doyle is used these days in the midfield, where his experience and leadership can have the most impact. Maybe he’s lost a step speedwise, but he’s made up for it in his reading of the game. He was crucial in all of Omaha’s 2022 Open Cup games so far, especially against MLS’ Chicago Fire – on the road at historic Soldier Field in the Third Round in one of the biggest upsets of this 2022 edition.
And despite hitting bumps in the road, Doyle exudes a delight with the whole process of his career. “It’s not always easy, with clubs and leagues folding and having to move from city to city,” said the Omaha captain who’s worked quietly away in the lower leagues where there’s no such thing as a multi-year contract. “But I have a few more years in me to play the game the way I want to play it.”
It’s that kind of attitude that will lead the underdogs from Union Omaha to the Allianz Field in St Paul to take on Minnesota United of Major League Soccer on Wednesday May 25th. While some of his teammates might have jangling nerves, Doyle has years of lessons to impart.
“We’ve made it this far and if we win, that’s incredible,” shrugged Doyle, the quiet leader of a team chasing more history and a coveted place in an Open Cup Quarterfinal. If the result doesn’t go our way, we can be proud of what we did.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.