POSTED ON JULY 3, 2013:
Professional Soccer Returns
Team banks on championship nostalgia
I will be the first to admit that I am not a huge soccer fan. My extent of knowledge in regards to famous soccer players starts with Pele' and ends with David Beckham. Yeah, those are the only two I know, and I've never actually seen David Beckham play. I probably know more about his wife than I know about him which, by the way, I'm not proud of.
However, I have lived in Tulsa long enough to remember seeing commercials back in the early '80s for the Tulsa Roughnecks. Led by their colorful general manager, Noel Lemon, the Roughnecks were a professional soccer team in the North American Soccer League from 1978 to 1984. They played their home games at what was then called Skelly Stadium on the campus of the University of Tulsa. They made the playoffs on a regular basis, and they actually won the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1983 by beating the Toronto Blizzard in Vancouver. The city was so proud that they gave the team a ticker tape parade downtown and treated them like hometown heroes. The highest attendance for a Roughneck home game happened on April 26, 1980, when 30,822 fans watched the Roughnecks beat the New York Cosmos at Skelly Stadium.
In other words, they were kind of a big deal around these parts. The team went out of business when the NASL folded after the 1984 season, but if you mention the Tulsa Roughnecks to any diehard Tulsan who was around back in the day, they will undoubtedly wax poetic about the team that brought home a championship.
Tulsa's soccer community has been thriving ever since then with a number of soccer clubs for just about every age group. One could point to the recent opening of the Mohawk Soccer Complex as evidence that soccer as a sport still has life in this city. With that being said, there have been a few attempts to duplicate the success of the Roughnecks over the years, but many never got off the ground due to lack of interest, proper available finances, or decent facilities.
Still, professional soccer apparently has not lost its luster here in Tulsa, as we've seen the debuts of not one but two new soccer teams in the same year. First, the Tulsa Revolution will make its debut in the Professional Arena Soccer League this November. Second, if you have not heard about this by now, outdoor soccer returned to Tulsa back in May in the form of the Tulsa Athletics who are a part of the National Premier Soccer League.
The Athletics have played all of their home games at the old Drillers Stadium at E. 15th Street and S. Yale Avenue, and they sit now with seven wins, two ties, and no losses. Yes, you read that right. They have not lost a game.
Courtesy of Tulsa Athletics
When asked why his team has been so successful on the field even though they are an expansion team, co-owner and restaurateur Sonny Dalesandro replied, "I've been in the restaurant business a long time, and the one thing I've learned is that people are only going to work as hard as you do. Our coach, Joey Ryan, feels the same way, and it shows on the field. We are not easily intimidated because a team is from Dallas or anywhere else. No one in this league is going to outwork this team."
Management must be doing something right, because the Athletics are at the top of the South-South Central division and have more than a good chance to make the playoffs, which start July 12. If you have not had the chance to catch this team in action, it might be a good idea to check them out. It's never too late to jump on the bandwagon. Tickets are very affordable and the games have the makings of an awesome family outing.
Co-owners Dalesandro and Dr. Tommy Kern were both fanatical Roughneck fans and grew up playing soccer right here in Tulsa.
"Tulsa has lacked a top-flight soccer team since the Roughnecks in the '80s," said Dalesandro, "It is important to point out that the league failed, not the Roughnecks. Historically speaking, Tulsa supported that team."
According to the owners, they hope that the team gains enough support in the city and within the soccer leagues that eventually the franchise can become a Major League Soccer team. The owners' belief in their team is so strong that they paid for renovations, updates, and utilities as well as $5,500 a month for rent to play in the old Drillers Stadium that has virtually been empty since the Drillers moved downtown in 2011. Their enthusiasm seems to be carrying over to their new team along with a small cadre of supporters who call themselves the Tulsa Ultras.
"We would really like to see attendance at the games grow as well as more exposure for the team," said Dalesandro, "Ultimately, as an organization, we want to become a big part of this city through community outreach with the fans."
The teams are comprised of players holding an amateur playing status, which consists of high school, collegiate, and former professional athletes. The amateur status means that the players will not receive a salary, but it allows college players in particular to participate without losing their collegiate eligibility. The National Premier Soccer League has 61 teams and is managed as a team-run league.
It remains to be seen whether either of these professional soccer teams can leave a mark on this city like their predecessor. These teams will have to fight for attention and dollars from the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, OU, OSU, and TU college football and basketball, the Drillers, and, to some degree, the Tulsa Shock, who have won a few games this season and seem to be improving. That is a lot to ask for from a city who has not been excited about a professional soccer team in over thirty years, but, hey, anything is possible. If management continues to be enthusiastic about the team and the team itself keeps winning, the possibilities are endless. Either way, the team benefits the community because it is yet another option for families who are looking for things to do in Tulsa.
For more information about the Tulsa Athletics' remaining schedule, tickets, and any other information about the team, find them online at tulsa-athletics.com.
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