Anyone watching the Eastern-Omaha men’s soccer matchup Saturday possibly thought they were transported back in time to Sept. 29, 2018.
On that date, Eastern hosted Summit League rival Denver, who was ranked fourth in the country and boasted the nation’s leading scorer in Andre Shinyashiki.
Omaha, this season, is not as high-touted as Denver was last year, but as far as this season’s conference rankings are concerned, second-place Omaha is just as good as a challenge.
The Panthers and Mavericks played to a 0-0 draw Saturday, in what was Eastern’s final home match this season, and, similarly, Eastern played Denver to a 0-0 draw last year at home.
But the similarities do not stop there.
Eastern goalkeeper Jonathan Burke stared down Shinyashiki last year, right before the nation’s leading scorer took a penalty kick in the 25th minute. Shinyashiki hit his shot to his left, but Burke read it and stopped the penalty kick.
Against Omaha Saturday, in the fifth minute of the game, Burke saved a penalty kick that saved Eastern from an early 1-0 deficit to a good conference rival.
Burke said the scenario of the penalty kick is something he envisioned during the week leading up to the match against Omaha.
What about Burke’s save was so interesting?
He dove to his right, Omaha’s Aaron Uribe’s left, to make the save, the penalty kick was taken on the same net as Shinyashiki’s last year (the goal to the right of the press box) and Uribe, like Shinyashiki, is his team’s leading scorer.
“Jon Burke, big moment for him, we’re proud of him, and it’s absolutely vital for him to step up like that so he can show everyone else how it’s done,” Eastern head coach Kiki Lara said.
With how everything from Saturday’s match, and last year’s match against Denver, lined up, it may have been fate for Eastern to play to the 0-0 draw with Omaha to get a point in conference play.
More likely, though, it was possibly Eastern’s best-played match thus far this season.
The Panthers are currently barely holding on to fourth place in the conference standings, due to a tiebreaker with Denver (only four out of the conference’s six teams go to the postseason tournament).
Even though the match with Omaha did not result with an Eastern win, a point is a point, and what the Panthers showed was the type of fight it is capable of going forward.
Eastern registered seven total shots, with three on goal, compared to Omaha’s 15 total shots and eight on goal.
Both teams had chances to end the stalemate throughout the match, and not only did both teams just have chances, they had great chances.
One of Eastern’s came in the second half, when Jonas Castelhano ringed a 30-yard rocket off the crossbar.
Despite Omaha taking more shots than Eastern, most of them were not threatening, or they were saved by Burke.
But with five seconds left in the second overtime, and thus five seconds left in the match, Omaha’s Mitch Hammer put a rebound on goal before the final horn sounded.
Omaha just crossed a corner kick in to the 18-yard box, and after some blocked shots and, quite frankly, some chaos, the ball ricocheted to Hammer, who had an open portion of the net in front of him.
But, from a couple yards out, he put too much into his kick, and the ball careened off the crossbar and out of play.
Eastern’s performance against Omaha was indicative of a Panther team ready to compete in the playoffs, and Lara seemed to agree with that sentiment.
“We talk a lot about making memories here on (Lakeside Field) and today we made one,” Lara said. “Even though we didn’t win, it was a winning championship performance from us and we’ll remember this.”
Even though the Panthers have faced the two toughest teams in the conference already in Omaha and Oral Roberts, the rest of their conference schedule will not guarantee an easy path to the Summit League tournament.
Eastern faces Western Illinois Oct. 26 on the road, and if Eastern is expecting its 1-0 win over Western last year to mean something, it may be in for a surprise because Western looks to be a better team this year, beating Denver 4-3 already, whereas Eastern tied Denver 0-0 Sept. 28.
To close out conference play, Eastern faces Fort Wayne Nov. 2 on the road. Fort Wayne is last in the Summit League currently, but a home-field advantage can do wonders for teams, especially if Fort Wayne will be in the hunt for the tournament at that point.
Four Eastern players received yellow cards in the match against Omaha: Shady Omar, Edgar Mesa, Davi Girardi and Maxwell Allen. If any of those players receive a yellow card in Eastern’s match against Western Oct. 26, they will miss their next match, which would be the match against Fort Wayne. Missing one of those players, especially Omar, Mesa or Girardi who have played a good deal this season, against Fort Wayne could hurt in a match where both teams potentially will be searching for conference points for the postseason.
Allen’s start is a sign of his standing now and for the future. He had the game-winning goal in Eastern’s 1-0 win over IUPUI Oct. 1. Allen did not do anything to really stand out against Omaha, but he got a starting nod against a good team in Omaha, in an important game for Eastern’s conference status. Allen’s start may be indicative of one player Lara wants to be a key part of the team for the future, especially since four seniors, who each have been key players in the midfield and in producing the offense, will be gone next year.