The bar is raised
Roughnecks ready for continued success in new season
At photo’s center, defender Francisco Ugarte, 2018 Roughnecks captain
Following a triumphant 2017 season in which the Tulsa Roughnecks FC made the United Soccer League playoffs for the first time and came agonizingly close to winning their conference quarterfinal matchup, the team has set their goals significantly higher this year.
Second-year head coach David Vaudreuil, who has revamped the Roughnecks’ roster, acknowledged that the bar has been raised and there is some internal pressure to take another step forward this season.
After losing three of its final four regular season contests, Tulsa finished 14–14–4 last year, settling for seventh place in the USL’s Western Conference. In the playoffs, they faced a difficult opponent in San Antonio FC, falling 2–1 after surrendering a goal in the final seconds of stoppage time.
This season began on Saturday, March 17 at in-state rivals Oklahoma City Energy FC. The Roughnecks lost 1-0. Tulsa’s home opener against Real Monarchs SLC, last year’s USL regular season champions, will be at ONEOK Field on March 24.
“I think the biggest pressure is to get out to a good start again, but I’m sure when the playoffs come around there’s going to be obvious pressure to go deeper,” Vaudreuil admitted. “Last year, the goal was to make the playoffs. This year, the goal is to go win the conference and to play in the Championship Game, which is possibly a little ambitious, but I think [with] the overall experience and depth and talent of the team, on paper, at least, we have a good shot to make a run for the conference championship.”
Some of Vaudreuil’s optimism is tied to a group of new, more seasoned players that he signed during the off-season.
“We have a lot more experience down the middle, with our two center backs, two defensive midfielders,” Vaudreuil said. “We have a deeper team on paper, with more experience and more talent. Last year, as good of a year as we had, we were a little young in a lot of parts of the field, especially down the middle, and I think we addressed some of those concerns.”
None of the top offensive players from last year, including forward Ian Svantesson, who led the squad with 11 goals, and midfielders Juan Pablo Caffa, who contributed nine goals and eight assists, and Joey Calistri, who had nine goals and six assists, are back.
Replacing Svantesson at striker will be 25-year-old Jhon Pírez from Uruguay, who played several years in Spain’s second and third divisions. Taking over for Caffa and Calistri in the midfield will be 26-year-old Santiago Maidana and 22-year-old Fernando Arce, both from Argentina.
Plus, Vaudreuil believes returning midfielder Joaquin Rivas, who had five goals and two assists last year, has improved significantly.
“We expect that he’s going to be able to upgrade his goal and assist production,” Vaudreuil said of Rivas. “He was one of our most stable and high-level players last year, and we’re expecting big things. He came into this camp in absolutely fantastic shape, and we expect this to be a breakout year for him.”
In addition to Rivas, top goalkeeper Fabián Cerda is back, as well as defenders Paris Gee and Francisco Ugarte. Also, continuing in their affiliation agreement with the Chicago Fire, the Roughnecks will receive several players from MLS club during the course of the year.
Another change this year for the Roughnecks will be the new field configuration at ONEOK Field, which puts the action much closer to the fans than before. Previously the soccer field was set up beyond the baseball diamond’s pitcher’s mound, starting in the infield dirt and taking up most of the outfield, but now ONEOK Field has installed a new hydraulic system that will lower the pitcher’s mound. This allows the field to be moved in and for it to be a little bigger.
Vaudreuil expects the new setup to benefit both the Roughnecks and the fan experience.
“I think it’s going to help us, because it’s going to make the field just a touch longer but a decent amount wider. We’re a very skillful, possession-oriented team, so the theory is, [on a] bigger field, the more skillful team is going to benefit,” he said. “So that’s great for us. But more importantly, just the overall atmosphere. Now, with that mound going down, that moves us a good 30 feet closer to all the fans, so it should make a huge difference.”