By John Tranchina/NPSL.com
It was nail-biting time for a while for Tulsa Athletic, but in the end, they were just too much for Azteca FC in their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup first-round matchup Wednesday night at the Case Soccer Complex at Oral Roberts University.
Tulsa received goals from Joe Garcia and Ruben Torres three minutes apart in the final 17 minutes to break open a tight 1-0 game, and after Azteca FC’s Cesar Meza was shown a red card in the 80th minute, Athletic cruised to a 3-0 triumph.
Tulsa won its first-ever game in U.S. Open Cup competition, after losing its three previous outings in the tournament, to reach the second round.
For Tulsa, the real prize is a long-awaited matchup with the USL Championship’s FC Tulsa in the second round, which will take place on April 5 at ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa.
“That’s going to be an awesome game,” said Tulsa midfielder Joe Garcia, the team’s captain who scored the second goal on a penalty kick in the 73rd minute to give the Athletic some crucial breathing room. “I can’t wait to get out there. We share Tulsa, so they’ll have fans, we’ll have fans, and it should be a fun game. We’ve been waiting for this matchup for a long time now. I’m finally glad that we can get this game on the board.”
A game between the two Tulsa clubs almost happened in the 2017 tournament (the United Soccer League squad was then known as the Tulsa Roughnecks FC), but Athletic dropped a heart-breaking contest to the Oklahoma City Energy FC Under-23s in penalty kicks in the U.S. Open Cup’s first round that year with the big matchup looming in the second round. Now it’s finally happening.
“It’s exciting,” said Tulsa coach Levi Coleman. “It’s good for Tulsa as well. It just shows that there’s a lot of soccer talent here in Tulsa. It gives a lot more players the opportunity to showcase their abilities and show they can compete at that level. It’s a huge thing on so many levels for us.”
Azteca FC, based out of Denver, Colorado, is an amateur club in the Colorado Premier League that already had to win three games in Colorado against other amateur teams, including a 4-3 overtime victory over Harpos FC, to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup tournament.
In challenging weather conditions of 45 degrees, with about 10 mile-an-hour winds, Tulsa controlled most of the action, compiling a 12-3 advantage in shots, including a 7-1 edge in the first half.
Tulsa, which won the NPSL’s Heartland Conference and South Region titles last season before falling in the NPSL National Championship Final to the Denton Diablos, took the early lead in the 25th minute on a goal from Aaron Ugbah. Matthew Rogers, who played collegiately for ORU on this same field, fed a nice pass across the top of the box to the charging Ugbah on the right side and he slotted the ball home low inside the near post.
Athletic had several other prime scoring opportunities, but were unable to capitalize, including a seven-yard shot by Jordan Watson that skipped just wide of the left post in the 44th minute and an in-close chance by Ugbah in the 68th minute that Azteca goalkeeper Marcos Madera made a nice save on.
But after a lot of pressure and little to show for it, Watson was taken down in the box, and Garcia stepped to the spot. His shot high to the left side went off Madera’s fingers and in, putting the Athletic up 2-0. Garcia said the team was confident they would eventually break through to increase their advantage.
“We just kind of stick to our principles,” Garcia said. “We like to keep the ball. As long as we keep the ball, they can’t score on us. The PK, I just got to step up big and put it away and that’s what I tried to do.”
Soon after that, Torres, an NPSL rookie, entered the contest as a substitute and he made his presence felt almost immediately. Joe Ruiz carried deep into the box and slid a pass across the box for Torres to bang home from about three yards out for a big goal.
“He’s a young talent that’s very good,” Coleman said of Torres. “This year he’s going to step up into a larger challenge and try to compete at this level and we think he’s got the ability to do it, and he showed it. His goal ratio in that amount of time is pretty good.”
Meza then received a yellow card in the 77th minute and another one in the 80th, resulting in his ejection and stifling any potential Azteca FC comeback possibilities.
With FC Tulsa, a team that has reached the USL Championship playoffs in each of the past two seasons, looming on the horizon, Coleman believes having two weeks to prepare will help his team’s chances of pulling off an upset. Athletic’s NPSL season doesn’t begin until May 6, so the team has only had five training sessions so far.
“I think some of what we need to do is get some more repetitions together and just find the rhythm,” Coleman said. “The team seems to understand the ideas, how we want to play. They’re bought into it, but there was still some stuff that we could do much better. Obviously, for the next round, we’re going to have to raise the level.”