Tulsa Athletic Falls to Pro Side Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC in U.S. Open Cup’s First Round

By John Tranchina/NPSL.com

This year, the magic wasn’t there.

After a glorious run to the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last year, the Tulsa Athletic fell in the first round of the 2024 edition, going down 4-1 to the Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC Tuesday night at Hicks Park.

It was a disappointing result for the reigning NPSL national champions, but the Athletic held it close for a while and had opportunities to change the course of the contest at various times, but things didn’t quite work out in their favor this time.

While Northern Colorado, which went 18-6-8 last season and reached the USL League One semifinals, outplayed the Athletic for much of the night, it was still 0-0 late in the opening half before a goal in the 43rd minute got the Hailstorm on the scoreboard. 

And even after that, it was still a close 1-0 game early in the second half before Hailstorm struck twice within 15 minutes to pull away.  Northern Colorado increased its advantage to 4-0 in the 85th minute before Tulsa got on the scoreboard in the 88th on a beautiful goal by Rio Mello.

“Conceding before halftime isn’t the best thing but I thought we gave it a really good effort, a really good shift,” said Tulsa coach John Woodhead. “Can’t fault the boys for their work rate.”

It was a game between teams that have seen some success in recent U.S. Open Cup tournaments, including both clubs defeating teams from the USL Championship last year to advance to the third round before falling to MLS squads.  

Last year, the Athletic defeated FC Tulsa in the second round before falling to Sporting KC, while the Hailstorm FC fell to the Colorado Rapids after beating the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in the second round. 

Northern Colorado started off strong, besieging Tulsa early on with pressure, but the Athletic held them off for a while.  Tulsa goalkeeper Bryson Reed made two spectacular saves in the first nine minutes to keep the game 0-0.  In the fourth minute, a leaping Reed got his hand on a point-blank header from Hailstorm midfielder McCain Clarke, and in the ninth minute Reed made a diving stop on a leaping header from seven yards out by David Garcia.

“Bryson, we talk about him every year, he’s a phenomenal goalkeeper,” Woodhead said of the veteran keeper. “He did extraordinarily well tonight.”

The Hailstorm FC continued to control the ball and the pace over the first 20-25 minutes, but Tulsa’s defense held strong and seemed to weather the storm, and the Athletic managed to stabilize play from the 25th to the 40th minute, even starting to push the pace a bit more. 

During that time, Northern Colorado did get one more prime chance in the 36th minute, when Reed made a nice save on Patrick Langlois’ 15-yard header.

But Northern Colorado kept pressing and finally broke through in the 43rd minute on a play that started with a Clarke corner kick.  The ball bounced around the box a little before former FC Tulsa defender Johnny Fenwick slid a short pass to Lucky Opara, who chipped a two-yard shot through Reed and in.

Tulsa actually almost tied it with their best scoring chance of the half during stoppage time when a lead pass from Luke Jeffus found Jacob Zamarron about 15 yards out for a quick volley that sailed just wide of the right goalpost. 

Northern Colorado made it 2-0 in the 51st minute on a nice 10-yard header by Irvin Parra, converting a long cross from Clarke. 

Tulsa responded with their best stretch of the game over the next 10-plus minutes, pushing forward and finally getting some shots towards the net.  The Athletic nearly got one back in the 59th minute when Zamarron drilled a 15-yard blast that appeared to be heading into the net, but it pinged off the left post. 

“If that goes in, it’s a different game,” Woodhead said.

But it was just six minutes later that Northern Colorado got the back-breaker, when Marky Hernandez, who had just subbed into the game, burst into the box and popped a seven-yard shot that deflected off the leg of Tulsa defender Francisco Lopez past Reed.

The Hailstorm made it 4-0 on a goal by Ethan Hoard, who redirected a nice lead pass from Chelo Martinez from 10 yards out in the 85th minute.

Tulsa’s Mello snapped Northern Colorado’s quest for a clean sheet just three minutes later, nine minutes after entering the game himself, with a spectacular free kick from about 20 yards out, just beyond the left corner of the box, that found the upper right corner of the net. 

That gave the estimated 300 Tulsa fans in attendance something to cheer about and took a little bit of the sting out of the disappointment.

“Fantastic free kick by Rio, he deserves it,” Woodhead said. “He’s always practicing free kicks and to see one fly in against a pro team is a good individual moment for him, good moment for the fans as well.  Thankfully, the fans are incredible, they stuck by us and you listen to the roar at the end of the night, they’re a big part of Tulsa, they help us every year.”

Besides Northern Colorado being a professional team and Tulsa playing in the amateur NPSL, the Hailstorm also had the advantage of already being in the midst of their league season, which began 10 days earlier with their opener on March 9 (a 0-0 tie against Lexington). 

Tulsa won’t start its 2024 NPSL season until early May, and although Woodhead did say that the team has been practicing for a while, it’s nothing like being already into the season.

“We had a good month, we were going two to three times a week,” Woodhead said of the team’s preparation. “It was tough for some of the boys to be at everything, with their work schedules and stuff.  I’m really proud of the guys for giving an effort.”


Photo Credit: John Tranchina/NPSL.com


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