By Duane DaPron/NPSL.com
Tulsa Athletic ended a decade-long quest Saturday night.
Chris Taylor’s goal in stoppage time in the second half forced extra time, and Francisco Lopez nailed the deciding goal in the ninth round of penalty kicks as Tulsa Athletic defeated Apotheos FC 1-1 (8-7) in the 2023 NPSL National Championship match at Soldier Field on the campus of Rogers State University.
The league title was the first for Tulsa Athletic, champions of the Midwest Region and Heartland Conference, since the club became an NPSL member in 2013. The club had been to post-season play nine times in 10 years (2020 NPSL season canceled due to COVID-19), including the national championship in 2021, before capturing its first crown.
“Ironically, we say ‘1-2-3 Family’ before every match,” said Tulsa Athletic head coach Jason Rogers, whose team ended the season winning its last 10 games and going unbeaten in its last 12 matches. “I think I have been saying from day one that this club and its fan base—as you can see—has deserved this for about four years. I don’t know how to express in words what it means to them.”
An exuberant crowd of 1,573 was on hand for the match that was scoreless at halftime as Tulsa Athletic goalkeeper Bryson Reed and Apotheos FC goalkeeper Henry Pleitez combined for seven saves. Reed was named the recipient of the Capelli Sport Man of the Match.
Apotheos FC struck first in the 81st minute when Junior Sandoval took a cross from the right flank from Geovanni Rios and scored from inside the box. The goal was Sandoval’s seventh of the season.
It looked like that goal might stand up for the second-year club based out of Kennesaw, Georgia. But, in stoppage time, Taylor collected a ball in front of the goal and blasted it into the net to knot the game at 1-1.
“It’s just a tale of what this organization is all about,” Taylor said. “There is a never-quit mentality inside of this group. It’s truly a blessing that we got to do it here in Tulsa.”
After the teams went scoreless in 30 minutes of extra time, the game went to penalty kicks. Each team was successful on its first five attempts before Reed batted away an attempt by Apotheos FC’s Samaan Williams. Pleitez responded by thwarting an attempt by Tulsa Athletic’s Mikey Mallon, and the match continued.
In the ninth round, Apotheos FC’s Emmanuel Alerte pushed his attempt wide left before Lopez nailed the title-winner to the lower right of the net.
“I knew if I did my job saving a couple, all these guys are going to do their job of putting it away,” said Reed, who made a key save on a shot from Williams in the final 15 minutes of stoppage time to keep the match tied before his save in the penalty kick round. “I had complete confidence in my guys, and I know they had the same energy toward me.”
Apotheos FC saw its eight-match unbeaten streak end on Saturday night.
“We gave up a goal with two minutes left in the final game,” Apotheos FC head coach Bruno Kalonji said. “That turned around things. We still had the game in our hands. But when you get to penalty kicks, it’s out of our hands. So, congratulations to them.”
Photo Credit: Brett Rojo/NPSL.com