By Peter Addison/NPSL.com
After nearly 90 minutes of play it looked as if the 2023 NPSL Championship had been decided. With a 1-0 score on the board and little time remaining Apotheos FC was moments away from securing their first NPSL National Championship. However, after the 90th minute and stoppage time began, so did a new game.
Tulsa Athletic was on the brink of defeat and running out of time when Chris Taylor managed to sneak his way into the box and through the backline of defenders and find an opening. Taylor managed to do the unthinkable and snuck in a goal that saved the day for Tulsa soccer fans.
The Athletic had many opportunities throughout the game but had been unable to put any shots past Henry Pleitez. On the other end of the field Bryson Reed was his own brick wall stopping just about everything that Apotheos sent his way.
This game was a battle of goalkeepers, and neither was willing to let their teams down with both Pleitez and Reed playing as well as their clubs could for. Tulsa’s Reed earned himself the Capelli Sport Man of the Match honors for his efforts in one of the closest matches one might ever see.
In the first half of the game both teams came out and played with a bit of timidity. Early on Apotheos settled for a few long shots from outside of the penalty box, and Tulsa tried to get some through balls to sneak past the opponents’ back line. However, at the end of the first half neither team had the upper hand with the score tied 0-0.
Early on, Mohamed Diakite showed his impressive speed and foot skills on the sidelines weaving his way through Tulsa defenders. However, in the second half Tulsa Athletic appeared to turn up their intensity and physicality with Diakite and break his rhythm and speed.
Apotheos brought more intensity as the game progressed and increased their shots on goal late in the first half and throughout the second. As the physicality increased so did the referee’s whistle as three players for Apotheos picked up yellow cards in the second half.
Neither team seemed to budge, and both goalies were playing as well as anyone could hope, but the stalemate came to an end when veteran Junior Sandoval connected on a brilliant finish that was set up from a right wing cross off the foot of Geovanni Rios in the 81st minute. However, with the clock winding down, there was still a lot of game left to be played.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Sandoval said. “We tried to keep momentum going in the second half, but it felt like we stopped playing our game at one point. We sat back and didn’t attack. But at the end of the day, I’m still proud of my guys. We play against the best teams in the nation.”
Apotheos FC head coach Bruno Kalonji felt as if his team let this one get away after giving up a late goal.
“They took us to penalties,” Kalonji said. “We were supposed to win, but it is what it is. That turned things around. We had it in our hands, but let it get away. I want to say congratulations to them.”
The match was still tied at 1-1 after 30 minutes of extra time. The 2023 NPSL National Championship was going to be decided by penalty kicks. The crowd of 1573 at Soldier Field on the campus of Rogers State University were roaring and silent with each team alternating penalty shots.
Taylor spoke about the journey his club has faced not only this season, but after falling in the league’s title game in 2021.
“The journey has been long but never wavering over the last ten years from the local support of the community, universities, families, kids, fans, and coaches who set out to make this happen,” Taylor said. “It’s just a blessing. I and everyone involved feel thankful and blessed to be a part of this.”
It took a remarkable 18 penalty kicks to ultimately decide the final. Both teams made their first five attempts and had their sixth attempts tipped and missed just wide of the goal. With every shot the pressure rose and all players stepped up to the occasion.
Both goalkeepers managed to get deflections on several shots that ultimately crossed the line. However, Emmanuel Alerte’s attempt went just wide of the left post, leaving an opportunity for Tulsa. Francisco Lopez stepped up and calmly picked his spot and scored the game-winning penalty to secure the championship which sent the Tulsa Athletic crowd into a frenzy.
Capelli Sport Man of the Match and Tulsa goalkeeper Bryson Reed shared a similar sentiment to Taylor about Athletic’s path to the championship.
“We knew after the Open Cup ended, we’d have a target on our backs,” Reed said. “That made us play harder and brought the best out of us. A lot of the guys who were part of the 2021 team brought their silver medals for added inspiration and to take the next step. We knew if we stuck to our gameplan it’d work out. Now I’m ready to go home tonight and take everything in, relax, and spend time with my family.”
This marks the first NPSL National Championship for Tulsa Athletic after finishing runner-up in 2021. Second-year club Apotheos FC made their first trip to the NPSL National Championship on Saturday and will look to make another run again next season after an impressive season from start to finish.
Photo Credit: Brett Rojo/NPSL.com