By John Tranchina/NPSL.com
They waited so long for this game and while it didn’t quite turn out the way they wanted it to, it was still a memorable experience.
The Tulsa Athletic of the NPSL, which won its first-ever Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup contest two weeks ago to advance to the second round, surrendered two goals within the first 19 minutes in a nightmarish start, but battled back to nearly pull off a big upset.
Ultimately, though, despite a goal from Billy Nzojyibwami that got them to within one, the Athletic eventually fell 2-1 to FC Tulsa on Tuesday night in front of 2,388 fans at ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa.
“It was a great experience, just seeing the Tulsa soccer scene looking like this and the support both teams had,” said Athletic coach Levi Coleman. “I saw lots of FC Tulsa colors, I saw lots of green for the Tulsa Athletic, so I think overall, this is healthy for Tulsa.”
“I enjoyed the experience, obviously gutted with the result,” Coleman added. “I think we just got caught up in the moment early and got a little shellshocked, put ourselves down 2-0 early, but I’m proud of how the boys responded and put up a fight for the rest of the game.”
A matchup between the two Tulsa clubs almost occurred in the 2017 tournament (the United Soccer League squad was then known as the Tulsa Roughnecks FC), but the 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.
Now it was finally happening for the first time, and while it may have seemed like a longshot after the opening 20 minutes when things could have devolved into a blowout, the Athletic stabilized after that. The goal by Nzojyibwami in the 77th minute that brought the Athletic to within 2-1 certainly got the crowd buzzing and made it all seem possible.
“For me, I was just waiting for the moment,” Nzojyibwami said. “I love playing for the Tulsa Athletic. It’s an amazing club, and when you get to do something like this, at a stadium like this, it’s amazing. I’m blessed.”
“Billy’s a phenomenal addition, he was with us back in 2019 when we went to the regional semi-finals,” Coleman said of the man he simply calls ‘Nzo.’ “He’s just finished up playing in school, so he became eligible for us. He’s been training and was ready for the last match, but hadn’t had enough training sessions under his belt. Having him now this weekend, you can see the result.”
Athletic goalkeeper Bryson Reed, who made six saves overall, made a spectacular diving stop in the 86th minute on a 15-yard blast from Gabi Torres that was ticketed for the upper left corner, to keep the Athletic’s chances alive. But while they applied significant pressure in the final minutes, the Athletic were unable to generate another legitimate scoring chance and fell just short.
“We got behind but the team stayed strong, we kept to what we wanted to do, what the coaches told us to do, and we kept our belief,” Nzojyibwami said. “And you can see that we almost put an amazing result here. It’s too bad we got behind 2-0 that early, but we fought back. Everybody here on the field did the ultimate best they could.”
The Athletic players noticed the fans, which were divided about 50-50 for each team, and were grateful for the support.
“It’s amazing, the fans, we heard them the whole game,” said Nzojyibwami. “It doesn’t matter if we were down 2-0 or whatever, they were there the whole time. It’s amazing. It says so much about the club and how (co-owner Sonny Dalesandro) tries to build this club, you can feel it with the fans.”
The first 19 minutes will haunt the Athletic for awhile.
FC Tulsa’s Brian Brown struck just five minutes into the match, redirecting home a nice cross from Jorge Corrales from about five yards out.
The USL Championship club increased the lead to two 14 minutes later when a corner kick from Joaquin Rivas found Ronald Rodriguez at the far post and his leaping header hit the upper left corner.
“I think the differences between professionals and non-professionals right now, the athleticism, for the corner kick, it was a massive man that got ahead of us and put his head on it,” Coleman said. “And on top of that, we were made to pay with not dealing with a ball across the box early.”
FC Tulsa, which has already played five games in its USL Championship season, going 3-2-0, looked like a cohesive team that has been playing and practicing together for about two months.
Meanwhile, the Athletic, which had just four training sessions prior to its 3-0 first-round victory over Azteca FC two weeks ago, is still getting used to each other out on the pitch. They played better as the game wore on, but they couldn’t dig out of the early hole.
“That’s where a big difference-maker comes, these guys are training day-in and day-out, that’s all that they’re doing and they’re five games into their season and also had a preseason,” Coleman said of FC Tulsa. “And we’re into lots of practice now. We had four before the prior game, four before this game, we’re training in the evening, working around everyone’s work schedule. You just look at the bodies out there, you can see the difference between a professional and a semi-professional.”
So while FC Tulsa advances to the U.S. Open Cup’s third round, the Athletic will now prepare for the start of the upcoming NPSL season and their opener on May 6 against Reign FK.
Photo Credit: Lori Scholl