‘No double standards’
Tulsa’s women’s pro soccer team levels the playing field
Midfielder Rachel Blankenship (15) was a key player in the 2018 Fortuna Tulsa season.
Growth is the prevailing theme for Fortuna Tulsa as it enters its second year. After starting off with two nail-biting victories, Fortuna Tulsa has heightened expectations in 2019, both on and off the pitch.
The biggest change this year is that the team’s new home stadium is ONEOK Field after playing its inaugural Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) season at the University of Tulsa’s Hurricane Soccer and Track Complex.
“We want the women to have the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in town,” said Wayne Farmer, Fortuna Tulsa general manager. “We had different facilities that we were looking at, and we thought it was important that the women play on the best stage in town, on what the men play on. We just want to bridge the gap of equality in sport.”
Fortuna also brought on a new head coach this season. Yolanda Thomas, who played for the squad last year, has taken over for Michael Wilson.
“Yolanda played last year and she just had huge respect from the players,” Farmer said. “She basically led from the field, and for us, in making the change. She has a fantastic name, on and off the field, in coaching. We definitely wanted to give the opportunity to a female to lead Tulsa’s women’s soccer team. So far, she’s been fantastic to work with.”
Thomas, 35, has been coaching for over 10 years at different levels, including youth soccer, where she had some of her current players, as well as high school, college and even the WPSL. She coached Edmond Memorial High School; was a player-coach for Oklahoma City FC, leading them to the WPSL’s national semi-finals in 2015; served as an assistant at the University of Tulsa for three years and is also currently the head coach at Rogers State University in Claremore.
With many of the same players back from last season, Thomas is going from teammate to coach, but as a veteran player last year, she was already in a leadership role.
“It’s been pretty seamless,” Thomas said. “A lot of players that I have a ton of respect for, and they have a respect for me, and we have a good relationship already, so it’s been pretty easy.”
While the team’s ownership is still the same as it was last year, with Barry Williams and Dave Hibbard as co-owners, that group now also owns the top men’s team in town, the United Soccer League’s Tulsa Roughnecks FC, and Farmer serves as general manager of both teams. But Farmer notes that having the same ownership doesn’t really impact Fortuna Tulsa that much.
“I think the only thing to say on that is there’s no double standards,” Farmer said. “The women are practicing on practically the same field as the men, using the same facilities, the same gym, the same athletic trainers—there’s no the men having the best and the women using a high school field. The women need to get the same treatment, training, as the men’s team.”
As for the team itself, the roster consists entirely of players who have local ties, with most of the players having grown up, played their club and high school soccer in the Tulsa area, along with a few others that are linked with TU, or the state’s other big colleges, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State. Most players are either in college, just graduated or about to start.
Key contributors from last season, such as Rachel Blankenship (a TU graduate), Parker Goins and Taylor Malham (both former Union High School and current University of Arkansas players), are all back, among others.
Malham scored the game-winning goal in Fortuna’s season-opening 3-2 win over Oklahoma City FC on June 1 and Goins notched the only one in a 1-0 triumph against SouthStar FC on June 8.
“That’s important to us, that we wanted local players,” Farmer said. “This team is to develop women’s soccer in Tulsa. We could go out and bring in a player from Kansas City, but that’s not going to make Tulsa soccer any better. We want a 10-year-old girl to look at Taylor Malham and what she’s been able to do, playing at Arkansas and playing on the (U18) national team, and say, ‘I want to be the next Taylor Malham.’ That’s huge to us.”
It’s all about building on the success of last year, both on the field, where the club finished second in the Southwest Conference with a 4-2-4 record, and off the field, where it set the WPSL’s single-game attendance record (1,720 on May 25, 2018) and was named the league’s Franchise of the Year.
“One of the biggest things that we’re trying to create here is the culture,” returning assistant coach Donivan Bradshaw said. “Having a good attitude, good work rate, a lot of heart, a lot of energy, we’re really excited to get the season started.”