Omaha men’s soccer will travel to Missouri State for first round of NCAA Tournament 

The men’s soccer team applauses as UNO pops up on the TVs at Backlot Taphouse, where the NCAA soccer selection show was played on the TVs. Photo of Andrew Smith

Omaha, Neb. – Mavericks team members and coaches erupted into thunderous applause upon hearing their name called on the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament Selection Show Monday. While they knew they had an automatic bid as a result of their Summit League Championship win against the Kansas City Kangaroos Saturday, the team was finding out for the first time who they would play against.

“At the beginning of the season we had a goal,” said junior Wawa Palga. “That goal was to win the Summit League Championship.”

Despite the fact that the Mavericks were the number three seed in the Summit League Tournament and had not won it since 2017, there was no doubt amongst the team that they would come out on top. Omaha played dominant defense throughout the entire tournament as they didn’t allow a single goal. 

“I expected to win the tournament,” said junior midfielder Junior Casillas.

The Mavericks were not able to notch a victory against Kansas City before the tournament, despite playing them twice in the regular season. Both games ended in ties, which made up for half of the ties the Mavericks had this season. That ended Saturday when the Mavericks pulled off a 2-0 victory to win the Summit League Championship.

Goalkeeper Nathanael Sallah continued his strong Summit League Tournament campaign by not allowing a goal in the championship, just as he had done in every other tournament game. Sallah tied his career high with seven saves, which contributed to his sixth shutout on the season.

This contribution was enough for Sallah to be named Summit League Championship MVP. Three more players from Omaha were named to the All-tournament team. Junior Mathis Pilon St-Louis, who scored the only goal in the semifinal win, headlined the All-Tournament team along with juniors Naz Astwood and Thore Boehm.

French junior Theo Klein recorded his eighth goal of the season on a penalty kick in the first half. This marked his sixth successful penalty kick of the season. With just three minutes left in the match, sophomore Ede Gramberg nailed the dagger to put the Mavericks up 2-0. Gramberg capitalized on a crosser from Palga and found the back of the net after his initial shot bounced off the goalkeeper’s hands.

While Omaha was able to come out on top against one Missouri-based team, they will have to even the season record with another in what is the most important game of the season up to this point. The Mavericks traveled to Springfield to face off against the Missouri State Bears once before this season. While the Mavericks dropped the mid-October match, there is still a great deal of confidence amongst the team. The 2-1 loss came as a result of a late-match goal from the Bears.

“They’re beatable,” said Palga. “We should’ve beat them the first time.”

The Mavericks had 10 total shots during that match, five of which were on goal. Missouri State had the same number of shots, but instead of putting just five on the mark they only missed one.

“We had a lot of missed opportunities,” said Casillas.

The team feels good about drawing an opponent they feel like they can beat, but the luck of the draw was not completely on their side. Numerous complaints arose about the state of the Bears pitch.

“It’s so hard,” said Palga. “It’s like old turf. It feels like carpet.”

The carpet-like turf did not stop Casillas from finding the back of the net for the sixth time of the season. Despite allowing two goals, Sallah was just one save off of his career high in that match. The Mavericks were not allowed a single corner kick for the entire match, but Missouri State had five opportunities from the corner.

The mid-season loss to Missouri State put the Mavericks below .500 on the season. Since the loss to the 16th-ranked Bears, the Mavericks only lost two more times before becoming Summit League Champions. One loss was to Oral Roberts on senior night, a loss that the Mavericks avenged just five days later in the first round of the Summit League Tournament. The other was to the first-seeded Denver Pioneers, the only other Summit League team to make their way into the NCAA tournament.

If the Mavericks are able to pull off the victory, they will go up against 16th-ranked Stanford in the next round. The Cardinal’s 9-3-5 record was good enough to clinch a first-round bye.

“Again, [Missouri State] is beatable. It should be a good one” said Palga. “Then we can go to Cali and relax on the beach.”