Recent loss won’t deter the team formerly known as Tulsa Athletics
OKC Energy FC U23 vs Tulsa Athletic at TU Soccer Complex on May 10
They were agonizingly close to a dream matchup, but despite the disappointing loss in the opening round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament, not to mention the loss of their stadium, the Tulsa Athletic soccer club is still here and thriving.
(Even though they were forced to drop the S from the end of their name [thanks to an overbearing lawsuit threatened by Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s—see the story in the Voice’s 2017 Feb. 1 issue], I’m still going to call them “Athletics.”)
The gut-wrenching loss came 2–1 on penalty kicks to the Oklahoma City Energy FC’s U23 squad at the University of Tulsa on Wednesday, May 10. Now, the Energy’s U23 team gets the opportunity the Athletics desperately wanted—to face the Tulsa Roughnecks FC in the second round of the tournament at TU on May 17.
“We realize that game would be important for the city of Tulsa,” said Athletics co-owner Sonny Dalesandro of the possibility of facing the Roughnecks. “I think people have wanted to see that game for some time now.”
And while the Energy seemed to have the better of play in the first half, with former TU player Matt Puig scoring in the 44th minute to give OKC a 1–0 lead, the Athletics slowly took over territorial control as the second half wore on.
Tulsa’s Declan Fitzpatrick tied the contest in the 80th minute and the Athletics had multiple opportunities to take the lead after that and through two 15-minute overtime periods, but could not connect. OKC then won the shootout 4–2, nullifying the dream cross-city matchup.
“Penalty kicks are always a coin flip, really,” said Athletics coach Joey Ryan. “It’s a tough way to decide a game after you’ve played for 120 minutes. I thought the second half we were the better team and in overtime, we were creating all the chances. A very exciting game by two good teams.”
Despite the bitter defeat, and having survived the loss of their stadium at the corner of East 15th Street and Yale Avenue—which is being torn down to make way for the new USA BMX headquarters and training facility, the Athletics are back for their fifth season in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
The squad will now play its home games at LaFortune Stadium, next to Memorial High School at LaFortune Park, on Hudson Avenue between 51st and 61st streets. The Athletics’ first home league game is Sat., May 20 at 7:30 p.m. against Ozark FC from Siloam Springs, Ark.
It may not have the same intimate Athletics character as their old home, and the playing surface is Astroturf instead of grass, but LaFortune Stadium should serve the team’s needs well.
“We had to play somewhere, and we looked at about seven or eight other options,” Dalesandro said. “There’s not a ton of places in Tulsa where you can play soccer in a stadium environment and LaFortune was one of them. It’s got a good location in midtown, it’s close to our offices, it’s close to where the boys will be staying.
“We loved the old stadium. It was a very unique piece of who we are. We had the freedom to do a lot of things there and express who we are as a club, which was really important in defining the character of our organization. At the same time, a lot of resources went into maintaining that.
“The venue we’re at now is new—it’s fantastic. A lot of things that were on our plate are now taken off of it, so we can focus on things like making sure the team on the field is as good as possible and not have to worry about mowing the field three times a week. We’re looking forward to it.”
On the field, the Athletics are hoping to build off a strong 2016 season in which they went 11–1–0 during the regular season, the second-best record (out of 84 teams) in the NPSL. After winning their first-round playoff matchup 4–1 over the Liverpool Warriors (a team based in Saginaw, Texas, not England), the Athletics were upset 2–1 by Dutch Lions FC (of Houston) in the South Central Conference Final.
And despite the recent U.S. Open Cup loss, Dalesandro is optimistic of his team’s chances this year.
“We lost a couple of key players, but we added a couple of really good pieces as well,” Dalesandro said. “On paper, I think we look maybe a little better this year than last. I think we have all the tools to make another deep playoff run and hopefully bring a national championship trophy to Tulsa. Fingers crossed.”
For more from John, read his most recent article on the Tulsa Drillers.