Kicking into New Gear
Players and coaches are excited about the mix of talent on the field, and the changes off it as the former Roughnecks organization begins a new era as FC Tulsa.
After the Craft brothers (J.W., Ryan, and Kyle) took over ownership of the Tulsa Roughnecks FC in August in the middle of an awful 2019 season, significant changes were promised, both on the pitch and off.
The team immediately started to show signs of renewed life, finishing last season with a 4-3-3 mark over its final 10 games after the purchase, although it still ended up 16th (out of 18 teams) in the Western Conference. In November, the next significant change came as the club hired James Cannon as team president, after nearly three years as the vice president of marketing for Nashville SC, a fellow United Soccer League squad that experienced impressive growth during his tenure. They went from being granted a USL expansion squad in 2017 to the point that they have been admitted as an MLS expansion side in 2020.
Then came the bombshell in early December: the team would now be called FC Tulsa, with a new logo and team colors introduced. It was a major transformation for a team name that had a great legacy and tradition in this city.
“We’ve done focus groups, listening sessions, surveys, and had town halls with our supporter groups. For the past five months, we have been trying as much as possible to listen to what people want,” says J.W. Craft. “We wanted to place Tulsa at the center.”
While some old-school fans were initially upset about losing the Roughnecks name, thinking that somehow the club was erasing the city’s rich soccer history that includes membership in the original NASL from 1978-84 and a Soccer Bowl championship in 1983, the reaction has grown more positive over the past couple of months, especially regarding the logo. The new colors are gold and white, accented by patina green and black, with the logo featuring a scissor-tailed flycatcher soaring upward into rays of sunshine.
“I think it’s been positive, the feedback we’re getting,” Cannon says. “I think people love the color scheme. I think they’ve understood the initiative in the change was just to put Tulsa at the heart. And it’s fun to see magnets all around, and stickers all over the place. Our merch is selling well.”
Another change this season is that the team is altering the field configuration for home games at ONEOK Field, which they share with baseball’s Tulsa Drillers. In the previous five seasons, since the Roughnecks joined the USL, the soccer field stretched from the first base line out to left field. This year, they are flipping it 90 degrees so that the pitch goes from third base to right field. This will allow more fans to be closer to the action.
“As we looked at the field, we knew we were retro-fitting something in there that’s not supposed to be there,” Cannon says. “The design of ONEOK, out there by third base, has two sections that are angled in to give you a perfect view of home plate and the infield. The problem is when you angle that way, and our game extends out into left field, that means you’re watching almost half the game kind of askew in your seat. “Because we genuinely believe we’re going to be selling this thing out very quickly, we need those seats to be functional. We also had a surveyor with GPS equipment come out and lay the field out.
“We wanted to bring the field as close as possible to the fans, and that new orientation gets the most amount of fans the closest to the field as possible. It brings those third base seats back into play because it’s now looking at the entirety of the field. And on the upper level, rather than being an end line seat, where we’ve had like a club-type seat with food hospitality and ticket package, it now is a midfield viewing opportunity. It just poses a lot of advantages for us.”
And perhaps most importantly, the ownership investing more resources into the team has resulted in coach Michael Nsien being able to secure some important, high-level players for the 2020 season, as well as retaining some of their key guys from last year.
“I would say in the past, Tulsa has had some teams that have had a couple of good players that got on people’s radar, and then right away, you lose them the following year,” Nsien says. “So, what we were able to do this year is retain the players that we liked, like Marlon [Santos], Cristhian [Altamirano], guys we feel are special, and then we were able to go out and compete for players, recruiting-wise. Guys like Lebo [Moloto] would have been outside of Tulsa’s realm before. You see some guys who fit your profile and you want to negotiate with, and sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And this year, we were able to win some.”
Some of the newcomers who Nsien recruited are expected to be crucial contributors, like attacking midfielder Moloto, as Nsien mentioned, who arrived from Cannon’s former team in Nashville after they moved up to MLS. Former Roughnecks defender Bradley Bourgeois also played in Nashville the past two years and is back. Other new arrivals whom Nsien is excited about include veteran Cuban forward Ariel Martinez and Nigerian defensive midfielder Raphael Ayagwa.
They will be joined by key returning players such as Brazilian forward Santos, who joined the squad last August and promptly delivered five goals and three assists in the final nine games. Also coming back is Rodrigo Da Costa, who led Tulsa with nine goals and 13 assists last season; Altamirano, who scored seven goals and had seven assists; and defenders Cyprian Hedrick and Matt Sheldon.
Players and coaches are excited about the mix of talent on the field and the changes off it.
“A lot has changed, starting with the quality of players we’re bringing in, to the gear we’re wearing. Everything is just more world-class and on a higher level,” says Hedrick, the team captain last season. “It’s just the little details, the lunch, training room, what they’re investing in. As far as us taking care of our bodies, those things — for us, they go a long way. It makes it easier to show up and give it everything we have.”
“The new owners have a vision, the new president has a vision, and that’s to compete at the top four or five spots in the league,” Nsien says. “The investment and resources have been provided. We expect that our players will be able to compete at the highest level in this league. I think the rebrand has been positive. You can see on social media there’s lots of activity, and you can see the quality of the people who were hired. I think people are waiting to see the product on the field, and we’re waiting to see the fans in the stadium.”
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