Hardcore Tulsa soccer fans pine for the glory days of the Tulsa Roughnecks. The team, imported from Hawaii, regularly ended its seasons with playoff berths in the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl. The team had talent, including Charlie Mitchell, Iraj Danaeifard and Victor Moreland. It also had fans. Lots of fans. At its peak of popularity, 20,000 fans filled the stands for games at The University of Tulsa’s Skelly Stadium. The Roughnecks rarely failed, but the North American Soccer League did in 1984, ending professional soccer in America until Major League Soccer debuted in 1993.
Soccer in Tulsa didn’t disappear during those lean nine years. If anything, the soccer scene exploded. Tulsa is home to the Athletics, one of the top five of nearly 50 semi-pro teams in the National Premier Soccer League. It’s about to be joined by a new indoor team, the Tulsa Revolution. Tulsans take their soccer very seriously. Soccer is so prevalent in Tulsa that it’s become a self-sustaining engine of sorts.
“We started something with the Roughnecks. Soccer’s grown tremendously in Tulsa over the last 25 years,” says ex-Roughneck Charlie Mitchell. “We now have a young bunch of elite athletes here that have reached the highest levels of competitive programs. The University of Tulsa, a Division I program, among the top five in the country, is here. We’ve got coaches that worked with some of the most competitive teams in the country. They have high standards and a love of the game that they’re passing along to Tulsa’s younger players.”
In the 1980s, the NASL represented the best of the best soccer, not just in the U.S., but around the world. The great Pelé played for the New York Cosmos. A handful of Roughnecks came over from the United Kingdom. The Roughnecks were right up there at the top of the league, competing twice for the NASL championship and bringing it home to Tulsa in 1983. The team was rewarded with a ticker tape parade, and its success left an indelible mark on the community. They were winners. They were exciting. They attracted both dedicated and casual fans. Soccer became the sport to watch in Tulsa.
May The Better Team Win
Roughnecks fans – kids during the 1980s – still tell stories about practicing with the team. On Mondays, the entire team assembled at various restaurants, inviting fans to lunch with them. Many fans were on a first-name basis with the Roughnecks. In 1983, as the NASL began rapidly folding, and the Roughnecks had trouble staying alive financially. With the loss of crowds in other cities with failed teams, the Roughnecks weren’t even pulling in enough money to make payroll. A local telethon rallied fans and raised enough to keep the team alive.
The Roughnecks started the first soccer camps in Oklahoma. There was no shortage of attendees. Tulsa kids with a love of soccer also had a love of the Roughnecks. Getting lessons from this band of British footballers was, for the kids, like learning from living legends. Members of the team still kick around in the Tulsa soccer scene, coaching youth teams and teaching at soccer camps. Some, now more than 60 years old, still play. And they still win.
Mitchell and Victor Moreland were inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012. Mitchell also passed his soccer skills to players at Northeastern State University, where he coached for nine years. He currently serves as executive director of the Highlanders Football Club, a Bixby team he started in 1997. Mitchell, like other Roughnecks, can’t put the cleats away.
Tulsa’s soccer crowd won’t forget the Roughnecks anytime soon. The 30th anniversary of their NASL championship win against the Toronto Blizzard before a crowd of 60,051 will be celebrated in October. The location, of course, will be TU’s H.A. Chapman Stadium, which to diehard Roughnecks fans will always be known as Skelly Stadium.
The Roughnecks were a blue-collar team that had one of the lowest payrolls in the league. As one fan says, it wasn’t about the money for these players. They loved soccer, and when they took the field, they rolled up their sleeves and got the job done. That attitude was right for Tulsa, a town built on rolled-up sleeves and jobs well done. The team was fearless, and that fit Tulsa, too. Just as Tulsa boosters were (and are) comfortable going toe-to-toe with larger cities, the Roughnecks never shied from taking on teams from those larger cities. They welcomed teams like the New York Cosmos to town. They wanted the challenges.
“That spirit is still here,” says Sonny Dalesandro, owner of the Tulsa Athletics. “Our youth teams don’t fear anybody. Their attitude is, ‘If you beat us, it’s because you’re a better team and you outworked us.’ Tulsa teams are fearless when they take the field. They take the same attitude the Roughnecks held when playing teams from bigger cities. They roll up their sleeves and get to work, too.”
Same City, New Teams
Even today, Roughnecks memorabilia enjoys healthy sales on eBay. A vintage 1976 Roughnecks jersey will cost you $100. There’s a market for everything Roughnecks, from pennants to programs and tickets to posters.
Dalesandro didn’t want to let soccer go when the Tulsa Roughnecks folded. With friends, he founded a men’s league team, the Boston Avenue Athletic Club, in 2005. It was casual, with a lot of Sunday matches, but a lot of hanging out, too. That club developed a second team, fondly called “the reserves,” that consisted primarily of players from TU, Oral Roberts University and a couple of professional teams.
The Athletic Club won a lot, becoming one of the best teams in the state. And that club was the seed for the Tulsa Athletics. It was also the beginning of a popular team strategy in Tulsa: Find the fuel for your engine in your own backyard. The Athletics recently joined the National Premier Soccer League. It’s a highly competitive league, but it’s also not a professional league, allowing players – especially college players – to retain their amateur status. With NCAA Division I soccer teams like TU and ORU down the street, good players aren’t hard to find in the college off-season.
“We absolutely ask TU and ORU players to join the fray. Tulsa has an incredibly deep player pool in terms of talent. We want the Athletics to be a representation of our finest local players,” says Dalesandro.
The Athletics themselves are a huge part of Tulsa’s soccer engine. They have fans. Attendance at games averages 3,500 avid spectators. The Athletics performed remarkably this year, losing only one game. It’s expected to dominate the division in 2014. The fan base will grow, and strong fan bases get teams promoted to higher level leagues. But Dalesandro also tips his hat to the Roughnecks when he talks about his team’s fan base.
“Without the Tulsa Roughnecks and the clubs they started and founded, Tulsa would just be another football town in America. We want the Athletics to have their own identity, while drawing on the past successes and influence of the Tulsa Roughnecks,” he says. “We really want the Athletics to embody the past, present and future of soccer in Tulsa.”
That future will be played out in the old, unused Drillers Stadium. The team will pay for renovations, updates and utilities. Dalesandro also plans on adding a beer garden and two playgrounds for kids.
After one season in the NPSL, the Athletics are the 30th largest in average game attendance. That number includes all competitive soccer teams in the U.S. and Canada – including the MLS; at present, there are 19 teams in the MLS. That the Athletics could, in its second and third seasons in the NPSL, move ahead of some MLS teams for game attendance is a real possibility.
Local entrepreneurs Adam Mellor and Shannon Clark are bringing a whole new angle to Tulsa soccer. Earlier this year they announced the arrival of the Tulsa Revolution, the city’s first professional arena league soccer team. Again, the Revolution is using the time-honored technique of finding solid players in its own backyard. The team recently held public tryouts, inviting locals to take a shot at pro soccer.
The Revolution will be aggressive this season. In addition to locals, they’re hunting talent in the Professional Arena Soccer League for its highest caliber players. The short-term goal is nothing less that making an appearance in the playoffs this year. The long-term plan is building an organization with high-end performances that will attract fans and keep them coming back.
“Americans easily fall in love with arena soccer. It has all the aesthetics and technique of the outdoor game,” says Revolution Head Coach Michael Nsein. “However, it’s played at 100 miles per hour with lots of scoring. The problem most Americans have with outdoor soccer is that an entire game can be played without a single goal scored. Indoor soccer averages eight to nine goals per game. It’s end-to-end excitement and entertainment, keeping even the most casual soccer fan on the edge of their seat.”
Start Early, Play Often
The University of Tulsa is a big star for Tulsa’s soccer world to orbit. The men’s team ended the 2012 season with a 14-6-1 record, earning the Golden Hurricane a berth in the Sweet 16 and garnering the team the overall number 14 spot in men’s NCAA Division I soccer. The women’s team closed the season with a 12-6-4 record, putting it close to a berth in the playoffs.
TU head coach for women’s soccer, Kyle Cussen, estimates that half of his team comes from Oklahoma, with most of those from Tulsa. Cussen goes to the Oklahoma well for players, but over time, he puts back as much as he takes. TU offers summer soccer camps for kids of all ages, pulling in 500 or more kids in one session. Day camps are held at local elementary schools. The Golden Hurricane, on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game, reaches out to youth leagues around the city. And they should. Those kids are their future players.
“When I started coaching, I was determined that if I became a head coach, I’d recruit Oklahomans first because there’s a lot of talent here,” says Cussen. “The talent’s been here, but the kids are getting noticed now because youth leagues are more competitive and traveling a lot more. Our teams travel all over the nation to play the best teams in the country.”
Tulsa Soccer Club Hurricane is exactly the kind of institution Cussen’s thinking about. If you’re growing pro players, you better give them the high-end training grounds they need. TSC Hurricane Executive Director, Jim Tindell, has spent years building up his facility in Jenks. His complex is where the best of the best Oklahoma soccer players are made.
TSC definitely gets them while they’re young. One of its programs includes kindergartners. There’s no shortage of teams to play on. TSC supports 90 of them.
“We have programs for all ages and playing levels, the largest coaching network, the most nationally licensed coaches, the only club affiliated with a MLS franchise, the only club in the Elite Clubs National League – the highest level girls’ national league – and the biggest youth tournaments, and the only major college showcase,” he says proudly.
Soccer’s The Future
A lot of smart people think there’s a Major League Soccer team in Tulsa’s future. Cussen believes that if crowds continue to support the Athletics and the Golden Hurricane, it makes Tulsa a good candidate. Dalesandro’s more adamant.
“First, soccer’s worked here before. The MLS knows that. The Roughnecks were one of the top averaging clubs in the NASL. The MLS sees Tulsa as a potential market for a team,” he says. “After that, it’s about Tulsans recognizing one extremely important thing: This is our only shot at having a major sports team in our city. This understanding has to lead to a unified effort to show our city’s leaders and local businesses that this is what we want here. Our hopes are that the community sees this situation the same and reacts accordingly to bring something very special to a very deserving city.”
Obtaining a MLS team will be the latest expression of the Oklahoma City-Tulsa rivalry. Prodigal, an advisory group with a specialty in professional sports, announced plans in mid-July to build a stadium large enough to hold a USL Pro soccer team. The as-yet-unnamed franchise will debut for the 2014 season – in an as-yet-unnamed stadium. The USL Pro league is, for want of a better description, a farm team for the MLS.
“It’s not easy to get a MLS franchise. You’ve got to have the fan support, the corporate support, and the resources to pay the franchise fees,” says Prodigal’s Executive Vice President of New Business Development, John Allgood. “It takes a lot. We don’t feel like Oklahoma City is ready for a MLS franchise right now, but it will be in seven to 10 years, and hosting a USL Pro team is a perfect way to earn our stripes.”
Regardless of which city gets the franchise, Tulsa will always be a soccer town. The city is a soccer engine that fuels itself, a perpetual motion machine that trains, nurtures and produces players that find spots in the highest echelons of semi-professional and professional soccer. Tulsa is where goals are scored.