By Matthew DeWitt/NPSL.com
A short rest and short bench gave Tulsa just enough to take Saturday’s Midwest Region Final.
Aaron Ugbah produced a winner in the second half of extra time as Tulsa Athletic overcame a late, game-tying goal from Steel City FC to earn a spot in next week’s National Semifinals with a 2-1 win.
“When it goes 120 minutes, it goes down to hunger and grit and fight and just pushing the pain because God knows, we have a lot of it right now,” Tulsa head coach Jason Rogers said. “They just fight through adversity, and that’s what makes this such a special, special group.”
Ugbah’s winner came on the counter, finding a pocket of space from the right flank on a drive towards the center of the field. From 23 yards out, he dropped a curling effort in the bottom corner to seal Tulsa’s regional championship.
Tulsa never trailed in the final. The eventual champions gained the lead midway through the first half through target man Aboubakr Diallo. With a ball over the top from Luis Flores, Diallo collected 12 yards out and powered his shot past Steel City’s Garret Watson for the opener.
Steel City eventually found a tying goal in the 84th minute through Bryan Akongo after pushing all night from the wings. A cross from the right flank pinballed around before the forward collected the ball and fired home the equalizer to the near post.
Much of the game was made with differing styles of play. For Tulsa, a traveling squad of only 15 made for a unique situation and new game plan that required more from Diallo, Flores, and Ugbah in a more direct setting.
“When you travel with such a lower number, you can’t press and we’re generally a pressing team,” said Rogers. “When you look at Abou, he’s a man. He’s a monster. We know that when we play him, and Luis Flores – he’s smaller in stature, but he’s a rock. If we can find their feet, it helps us get out of trouble, kickstarts our attack.”
Tulsa had the ball in the net once in the first period of extra time only for it to be ruled out for offside. Chaos in the penalty area allowed the ball to fall to Ugbah on the near post, but the side official called it back to keep the game level.
With the win, Tulsa will move on to host Crossfire Red in the NPSL National Semifinals. The West Region Champions came back from a two-goal deficit to earn a spot in the final four with a 3-2 win over El Farolito on Saturday night.
Photo Credit: Doug Wells