By Aaron Tomich/NPSL.com
A coach’s ideal player is one that can step into any given role upon necessity. The value of versatility, particularly in the sport of soccer, has the potential to prove its immense worth on the pitch during each match.
Couple that versatility on the pitch with a high IQ of the game, and you have Joe Ruiz – a 22-year-old Tulsa Athletic center back who has made a strong impact for his club throughout the 2021 NPSL season, including the postseason run to the NPSL National Championship.
“I’ve just about played everywhere for [Tulsa] Athletic this season,” said Ruiz, who has been with the club for three seasons including 2021. “This year, I started off at center back, then switched to midfield for six games and then went back to center back to fill some spots when some players left for college.”
Ruiz credits his versatility and his ability to switch positions with ease and comfort to his strong knowledge of the sport. He said that since his younger years, he has studied the game, watching and taking notes from the likes of FC Barcelona’s best in order to truly grow in his own capability.
“When I was watching the games, I would always try to predict what the pros would do, what their next move might be and how I would play the ball in that situation,” said Ruiz.
That commitment to growth resulted in Ruiz’s high IQ, which he is then able to instill confidence and trust in his coaches and fellow teammates. This has translated well for Ruiz in all levels that he has played in. Currently, the defender is a graduate student-athlete at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Before that, he played three years for the Golden Hurricane at the University of Tulsa.
While making 32 appearances (30 starts) and scoring five goals as a member of the Golden Hurricane squad, he was connected to NPSL and Tulsa Athletic by its former head coach as well as the current owner, Sonny Dalesandro, who constantly recruits players from Tulsa and ORU to join his squad in the summer.
Ruiz knows that his role at Tulsa Athletic is important as he and his teammates prepare for Saturday’s NPSL National Championship contest against Denton Diablos FC in north Texas. Coming off one-goal victories in three consecutive playoff matches following a penalty-kick shootout win in the Heartland Conference Semifinals over OKC 1889, the defender said that his mentality entering the championship is one of grit.
“It’s been good for us knowing that we can face adversity,” said Ruiz. “Even in close games, we still have guys that can put in hard work even if they are tired. I think one of the greater things about us is that we are a fit team, and it’s going to be hard to break us down.”
Tulsa Athletic General Manager Daniel Devore emphasized the determination that Ruiz has going into Saturday’s final match.
“Joe, being part of the 2019 core of our team who lost in the South Regional, has always had that hunger in him to not have to experience that feeling again of what it was like to lose in the NPSL playoffs,” said Devore. “From day one this year, his goal was to bring home a championship to our club, and not only was he able to motivate himself to get us to the championship, he was able to motivate the guys around him to reach that goal.”
“I believe some of our success has come from the ability to score goals from multiple different players rather than just having one player who scores the majority of the goals,” said Ruiz. “The formation switch has a huge impact on that as well as players having the confidence in themselves in front of goal to put it in the back of the net.”
Looking ahead to the championship, Ruiz is beyond excited to be playing for a trophy on behalf of his club and the fanbase that provides immense support. Ruiz noted that many fans of Tulsa Athletic volunteer time to make sure the home stadium and pitch are ready on matchday, acting as one big family.
“When we got off the plane back home from our semifinal, a lot of fans were out there to greet us, clapping and super excited to see us,” said Ruiz. “I know this means a lot to them that we were able to get to the finals. Hopefully we can bring it [a championship] back to them.”
Photo Credit: Niko McWilliams