By John Tranchina/NPSL.com
Both clubs had unfinished business from last season after heart-breaking losses, but on Saturday night, it was Tulsa Athletic that managed some redemption and took the next step.
Luis Flores scored three goals, and Vini de Oliveira connected on a crucial penalty kick just before halftime to lift the Athletic to a 4-0 victory in the NPSL National Semifinals at Soldier Field on the campus of Rogers State University.
Tulsa now will host the national championship game next week, hoping to claim its first NPSL title. After reaching the NPSL National Championship in 2021 but falling to Denton, the Athletic carried a 1-0 lead into the 85th minute of last year’s national semifinals in Tulsa but surrendered two late goals to FC Motown. FC Motown went on to face Crossfire Redmond for the championship, battling back from a 3-2 deficit, tying the game in the 81st minute and winning it in the 90th to take the title.
“We’re a club and a family that deserves to have it here,” said Tulsa first-year coach Jason Rogers of hosting the final. “I think last year, they felt a little hard-done losing to Motown, which is a very good team, they were up with five minutes left and ended up losing 2-1, so this is hopefully a redemption in a different way, with a different group of guys coming in. It was a great, great win for us.”
The Athletic went 7-1-2 in the regular season and reached the semifinal after defeating Des Moines United FC 4-3 and Midwest Region No. 1 seed (and previously undefeated) Steel City FC 2-1 in overtime last weekend.
“Making it as far as we have the last few years, we knew we’ve got the talent, even losing a couple of guys, but we’ve also brought in some really good guys,” said longtime Tulsa goalkeeper Bryson Reed, who made six saves for the shutout. “We knew it was a matter of time. We just got to take it game-by-game, team-by-team, and then, we’ve been in the final before, we know what it’s like. We have a little bit of experience with it, so hopefully, we can get the result we’re looking for.”
Flores snapped a scoreless tie late in the first half and then connected for two more in the second half, giving him an impressive 10 goals in just nine games this season, tying Aboubakr Diallo for the Tulsa team lead.
“My first year here, it just feels amazing,” said Flores, who will be heading to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa this fall after starring at Tyler Junior College in Texas. “I owe it to the team. The first goal took the pressure off of us, it’s good it came, it took a lot of pressure off of us. The other two just put it away. I’m just thankful for the team behind me.”
Rogers was happy to see Flores continue to deliver when the team needed it most.
“There’s a reason that he was one of the best players in junior college the last two years, it’s not hard to see, especially when you have a left foot like that,” Rogers said. “Just give him a little bit of space and let him let go of it. The way the ball comes off his foot, it’s next level. He’s a special, special player – his IQ, his strength is probably his strength, and just his way of involving other players around him and getting out of trouble. ORU is going to love having him.”
Crossfire Redmond probably held the territorial advantage over the first 20 minutes or so, but Tulsa started to press a little more after that and finally broke through for the game’s first goal in the 39th minute. About 15 minutes after his 28-yard free kick curled just wide of the left goal post, Flores carried the ball across the middle and blasted a shot from 22 yards out that beat Crossfire goalkeeper Jackson Ozburn just inside the right post.
Tulsa got another one in the third minute of first-half stoppage time. Diallo was taken down in the box by Crossfire Redmond’s Michael Gallagher, who earned his second yellow card and was subsequently ejected from the game. De Oliveira connected on the ensuing penalty kick, firing low to the right side as Ozburn dove left.
That left Tulsa with a 2-0 halftime lead and an 11-on-10 advantage for the rest of the contest.
With an extra player, Tulsa controlled the play for much of the second half, and Flores put it out of reach in the 53rd minute when he received a nice pass off the right flank from Aaron Ugbah and drilled a 15-yard shot home from the middle.
Crossfire’s best opportunity came in the 66th minute when Tyler John fired a shot from 12 yards out, but Reed made a nice diving save near the right post.
Flores completed the hat trick in the 75th minute with another booming shot from 12 yards out.
“That kid’s a stud,” Reed said of Flores. “He’s one of those guys where we’ve lost a couple of guys and the way he plays, it feels like he’s five players in one. He constantly works hard, obviously he’s a goal scorer. There’s nothing the kid can’t do. He’s really got a big, bright future ahead of him. I’m excited for him.”
After coming so close to a championship last year, Crossfire Redmond, based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington, went 7-1-2 during the regular season. They advanced to the semifinals with a 3-2 overtime victory over El Farolito in the West Region Final last week after tying it in the 14th minute of stoppage time before winning it with a goal in the second OT period. After all that, this was not the way that Colello envisioned this one going.
“Disappointing,” Colello said. “We didn’t play well today; we had some bad luck. This team’s a good team, it’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes.”
Reed definitely believes having the final at home will make a big difference in Tulsa’s favor, after they lost on the road at Denton in 2021.
“You can tell, when teams come here, they’re not used to having a crowd like we do, just the atmosphere here is insane,” Reed said. “I would be shocked if I was an away team playing here. It’s that big of an advantage being in front of these guys and they cheer from start to finish, no matter what the result is. Definitely a big advantage for us.”
Photo Credit: Brett Rojo/NPSL.com