By John Tranchina/NPSL.com
KB Harris had dreamed about the outcome and the Tulsa Athletic defender made sure it happened.
Harris not only scored the only goal on a header off a free kick from Roman Torres in the 63rd minute, he then helped lock down the defense as the Athletic withstood late pressure to pull off the monumental upset of a 1-0 victory over the USL Championship’s FC Tulsa Wednesday night at Hicks Park in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup.
“We all can envision the future, but I think the best part was, we were all in the moment,” said a beaming Harris afterwards. “Every one of us wanted to be in that game. We were present, we were there, and you saw the result. Everyone laid their bodies on the line for 90 minutes, man. That’s warrior mentality, I love that. We’re on top of the world right now.”
Athletic first-year coach Jason Rogers was just happy he was able to start Harris at center back after went in as a late substitute in Tulsa’s first-round 1-0 victory over Brazos Valley Cavalry FC on March 22.
“I think KB is a special guy,” Rogers said. “He didn’t even start against Brazos and then he came on and played in the middle of the field. KB is Mister Utility. I’ve had him play up top for us, I’ve had him play in the middle, I’ve him play out wide, I’ve had him play outside back, the only thing he hasn’t played is (goalkeeper). So, we moved him to center back. He did it all tonight.”
Rogers believes the result proves that his club, which reached the NPSL national championship in 2021 and the national semifinals last year, deserves a little more attention in the Tulsa sports landscape, now that it’s beaten the city’s more-celebrated pro squad.
“I think today proved there’s a turning point,” Rogers said. “This isn’t about FC Tulsa, but it’s a turning point for maybe for this club, that it’s time to recognize this club as a superior club. We don’t make it to a national championship and the semifinal of our league in back-to-back years, and then beat an FC Tulsa team, and kudos to Coach (Blair) Gavin and those guys for coming out and giving us a great match. I think it was great both ways, and I think our boys just found another level tonight. That’s the best way I can put it.”
The Athletic advances to the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, the furthest they’ve ever advanced in the tournament. The next round’s schedule has not yet been announced, but it will take place on April 25 or 26 and Tulsa will likely face a team from MLS.
“We’ll see,” Harris said of the next possible matchup. “We’re all excited. We’re going to enjoy our night and then starting tomorrow, we’ll focus on the next match.”
After FC Tulsa won 2-1 in the first-ever contest between the clubs in last year’s U.S. Open Cup second round at their much-larger stadium in downtown Tulsa, the atmosphere this year at Hicks Park was electric, as fans of both teams packed the smaller, humbler park. The Athletic’s fans definitely outnumbered those of FC Tulsa’s, though, and once the final whistle sounded, they flooded the field in celebration.
“Words can’t describe,” Rogers said of the atmosphere. “I don’t know if that’s cliché or what, but obviously, number one is, (team owners) Sonny Dalesandro and Dr. Kern and everybody administration-wise, a part of the Tulsa Athletics, and their fans, deserve this and they have for a long, long time.”
The home crowd erupted when Harris scored in the 63rd minute. On a free kick from about 35 yards out, Torres delivered the ball into the box about five yards out, where Harris headed it home.
“We actually had a plan at halftime to play that ball back post first set piece, so it ended up working out,” Harris said. “I found myself open, had to call one of my guys off, but it ended up going in, so we’ll take it.”
“It’s funny that he scores off a header, because we say there’s some kind of magnet in his head,” Rogers added. “In training, the last game against Brazos, in our friendly with Reign which helped get us ready, he always wins it.”
After that, FC Tulsa made a late push for the equalizer, inserting several of their top scorers into the lineup as substitutes, but despite applying a lot of offensive pressure, they weren’t able to get through Harris and the other defenders for another legitimate scoring chance.
“We were staying compact,” Harris said of the Athletic weathering the storm over the final 20 minutes. “I think for the most part, we were definitely under pressure, especially after the goal, and they made some subs, but for the most part, we felt pretty calm, pretty collected, throughout the match. It was awesome, a clean sheet is always a good thing, but against a professional team, that’s something we can pride ourselves on and carry on to the next round. We’re buzzing.”
Athletic goalkeeper Bryson Reed made five saves for the shutout, with his toughest stop probably coming in the 29th minute off a point-blank 10-yard shot from Watz Leazard. After one last corner kick ended up in his hands just before the final whistle, Reed knew it was over.
“That whole second half just felt like it took maybe three hours, but whenever I caught the last one, it was just a big sigh of relief,” Reed said. “You could tell they were obviously just trying to get the equalizer late in the game, but the backline did a fantastic job not letting them get any easy chances, the midfielders also did the same. We kind of had to defend for our lives back there. Any shot they had wasn’t a clean shot, so no real clean chances, so we were able to see it out. It wasn’t neat, it wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, we got the win and we’re on to the next round, so I’m excited.”
The first half ended scoreless but not before the Athletic generated had prime chances over the final two minutes. In the 44th minute, Aaron Ugbah dribbled down the right side and drilled a shot from 15 yards out that bounced past FC Tulsa goalkeeper Austin Wormell and rolled just wide of the left post.
Then less than a minute later, Mitchell Cashion fired a shot from about 12 yards out on the left side of the box that appeared headed for the upper right corner but Wormell managed to make a spectacular leaping hand save, deflecting it just wide.
Overall, the Athletic outshot FC Tulsa 11-7, while both teams had five on target.
Photo Credit: John Tranchina/NPSL.com