Exploring some of the most compelling lower division teams in the United States, our Descending the Pyramid series continues with the Nebraska Bugeaters. Embracing the midwest lifestyle and culture to the fullest, the Bugeaters have gained momentum thanks to their beautiful kits, talented squad, and most recently, a development partnership with EFL Championship side Huddersfield Town AFC.
Let’s take it back to the ’90s — kits were brash as ever, Brazilian Ronaldo and Zidane made bald guys cool (OK, maybe it was Michael Jordan), and Jonathan Collura was falling in love with soccer. Collura, then a college student, ignited his infatuation through watching Creighton University play as well as connecting with fans of his favorite English Premier League club Crystal Palace on a new fad called the Internet. The first match he ever watched featured Crystal Palace, so he hopped on the (albeit small) bandwagon and launched a page for an international supporters’ association. It was one of the first Crystal Palace pages on the web.
Fast forward to today, and Collura is heavily involved in the business side of the game in England and the United States after a successful foray in banking. He made an investment into English club Alfreton Town F.C. in 2014, co-founded National Premier Soccer League side Napa Valley 1839 in 2016, and is also a partner and director at English club Bradford Park Avenue. In his business dealings, Collura has even had the chance to meet some of the Crystal Palace players he grew up watching.
But for the 43-year-old Omaha, Nebraska native, it’s not just about achieving the ultimate fan’s dream. He always wanted to launch a club back home, which led to the inception of the Nebraska Bugeaters FC in 2018.
Created to give the talented pool of Nebraska collegiate soccer players a place to play over the summer, Collura had a vision to both increase the soccer culture in his home state and provide opportunities for players to take their games to the next level. He called his team the Bugeaters, a historic name that stems from the 19th century Nebraska famine, when people only had bugs to eat.
“There are a lot of good colleges and universities in Nebraska that have soccer programs,” Collura said. “What I saw was a huge gap in the summers — these players wouldn’t be playing. Sometimes they would go off to NPSL and Premier Development League teams outside of the state. I really wanted to put a team in Nebraska to do two things. Number one, celebrate the culture of soccer. And number two, to help with the development path for these players.”
In order to fulfill his vision of making Bugeaters a developmental path for the local players, Collura put together a management roster that’s in touch with Nebraska soccer at every level. Team President Michael Doria is on the Board of Directors for Nebraska State Soccer and also coaches a high school team. Head Coach Scott Robertson, who came over from Burnley, England about eight years ago, currently coaches at all levels of Nebraska soccer.
The state of Nebraska is well known for supporting its amateur sports, from the nearly 100,000 rabid University of Nebraska football fans who pack Memorial Stadium in Lincoln every fall Saturday to the die hard supporters of the Omaha Lancers, a junior ice hockey team which has been operating since 1986. The support for the Bugeaters so far has been no different.
The club has its own supporters’ group — something not too common amongst semi-pro teams. Titled The Field Hands, members from all across Nebraska pack into Creighton University’s Morrison Stadium for each home game.
The group’s insignia, the sower reaper, pays tribute to the crop reaper that sits atop the Nebraska state capitol building, further playing into the group’s embrace of midwestern culture and lifestyle.
The Bugeaters’ stunning set of kits is what first brought our eyes to them. The super clean design is a product of Collura’s vision for the club to reflect simplicity. He created a crest which features a copy of his grandfather’s Ford tractor — a staple of many properties in Nebraska — on top of a soccer ball.
For the actual jersey design, Collura contacted Custom FC to help out. The result is a beautiful faded stripe makeup highlighted by the eye-catching red secondary jerseys.
“You’ll notice the red is a very specific red,” Collura said. “I want that red to pop, I want people to see that and that it stands out. Every detail is intentional.”
The black kit is also simple in design, complete with shoulder stripes similar to ones you’d see on American football jerseys.
The kit sponsor is Backswing Brewing Co., a Lincoln-based brewery. Backswing also makes a beer for the team called Bugeaters FC ‘Goalden’ Ale.
“I wanted a brewery on the front,” Collura said. “Because that is the crossover from the culture, right? And so Backswing was fantastic.”
The best part about the Bugeaters kits? They only cost $42, which goes back to the pillars upon which the team is founded on — community, sustainability, accessibility, and opportunity.
Off the Pitch
The Goalden Ale and the mystery merch boxes available in the Bugeaters online shop aren’t the only smooth moves the club is making off the pitch. As a frequent traveler, Collura always has a lot of time to listen to podcasts, so he came up with the idea of a partnership with New York-based soccer comedy podcast The Cooligans, starring comedians Christian Polanco and Alexis Guerreros. The Bugeaters now display The Cooligans logo on their sleeve.
Excited to keep The Cooligans x Bugeaters partnership going another year. The logo for our comedy soccer podcast will be on the sleeve of all kits and training gear this season. We still can’t believe it. ? + ? = ? https://t.co/3jEwqlO65h
— The Cooligans (@SoccerCooligans) March 7, 2019
“I think the way they approach things, it kind of fits with us,” Collura said. “And what’s funny is you’ll see the guys that they’re working with, they’re a lot of the same people we know. The thing I like about them is that they have that New York urban feel to it, and they fit very well with us because we’re kind of a niche brand so to speak. And they use the world ‘gully,’ and it’s funny, because ‘gully’ I think describes exactly who they are.”
Their relationship with the popular podcast has earned the Bugeaters some momentum on social media, where the team has #COYT and #FarmToPitch pinned in their Twitter bio. The former of course a twist on the famous English chant popularized by London teams Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and the latter a play on the popular farm-to-table culinary movement. The Field Hands also get in on the act using #Harvest3Points and #GonnaCutYouDown in their Twitter bio.
On the Pitch
As a semi-professional side, the Bugeaters are primarily concerned with fostering the growth of their players to take their games to the next level. In efforts to do so, the club recently announced a development partnership with EFL Championship side Huddersfield Town AFC.
The partnership will give the Bugeaters access to the Huddersfield academy’s coaching techniques and analytics, while also potentially creating opportunities for Bugeaters players to take their talents overseas. Conversely, the Bugeaters will give Huddersfield Academy members a pathway to continue their education and playing careers in the U.S.
The Bugeaters participated in the United Premier Soccer League last season, but this year the team is playing a schedule full of competitive friendlies as they prepare for entry into the Great Plains Premier League in 2020. As far as the team’s style of play goes, Collura and his manager Robertson favor a tactical, possession-heavy game.
“My personal philosophy as a coach is freedom of play and creativity,” Robertson said. “Especially when we’re going forward, I want us to be free-flowing and creative. That’s a huge part. And that’s the kind of players I look for in the tryout and selection processes. Players that are fun to watch. Guys that are good on the ball, guys that want to go forward.”
Hey man, nice shot. @bugeatersfc scores from way downtown against @ChattanoogaFC.
JT Seger used the force from 54 yards, caught the keeper off his line for a goal.https://t.co/kT9FK5pqSK pic.twitter.com/u1wbNIMYNq
— KaleyCo (@J_Kaley) May 5, 2019
The team itself is built by a majority of college players, with a few graduates sprinkled in. These “alumni” players serve as a bedrock and provide priceless wisdom and set the standard for the club’s younger players.
“We’ve got guys that have played for Creighton, guys that have played for New Orleans, and big D-1 schools around the nation,” Robertson said. “And those guys know what it takes to win, they know what it takes to be in an environment that’s competitive. And it really is the foundation of what we try to foster every practice and squeeze into our games.”
One of these alumni players is midfielder Tobias Maertzke, a Hamburg, Germany product who came to the U.S. during a high school foreign exchange program. He works at Hudl selling video analysis software and coaches local youth during the day, but that doesn’t stop him from lacing up his boots for the Bugeaters at night.
“I think it’s a really amazing and cool feeling to just go out there,” Maertzke said. “Our squad is very diverse. I think it’s just cool to bring the game to the community. Besides the college side, there hasn’t been a team here in Omaha for a long time, so it’s just cool to bring the community together, which is what football is all about. Getting everyone out there, supporting one team, and having a good time. I think that’s the most joy you can have, delivering that to the community.”
Maertzke is a volunteer who plays because he loves the game, and the Bugeaters give him and the other players the chance to get noticed by a club stateside or abroad. Only in its second year of existence, the Bugeaters are giving its players real opportunities to thrive, and it’s only a matter of time until their buzz morphs into a full-on roar.
Photos by John Peterson courtesy of Nebraska Bugeaters.