The Oppo: FC Tulsa
Not the Beverly Hillbillies any more
In this edition The Oppo moves on to the meatier part of the Legion’s schedule with our first examination of a divisional opponent. This time we open up the wellhead on FC Tulsa.
FC Tulsa entered the USL Championship in 2015 as Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The name was significant for several reasons. First, it was an homage to the original Roughnecks who played in the 70s and 80s in the original NASL (which they won in 1983). Second, it is also an allusion to the Tulsa Drillers, the minor league baseball team owned by the original owners of the soccer team, and with whom they also share a stadium. Third, the name won a fan vote. The name was changed prior to the 2020 season after the team was sold to the Craft family. The new name may be boring, but the new logo is frankly one of the most attractive in US soccer.
Historically, Tulsa has not fared too well on the field. Over 6 seasons they have made the playoffs just twice (in 2017, but more importantly in 2020), reaching the conference quarterfinals (the first round) on both occasions. In 2020 they lost 4-2 on penalties away to a very strong El Paso Locomotive after playing them to a 2-2 draw after extra time.
For obvious reasons the team has a rivalry with OKC Energy, which is not being interrupted this season as both teams are moving the Central Division. The rivalry is called the Black Gold Derby; Tulsa has won it just twice, in the same years the team made the playoffs.
2021 marks the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. To commemorate this, the club announced Tuesday this week that it will wear a sleeve patch reading “Greenwood Ave.” It is also notable that Tulsa has (to our knowledge) the only black head coach in the USL Championship.
Head coach is Michael Nsien, a Nigerian-American who had a fairly short playing career in the early 2000s with the Portland Timbers and in the United Arab Emirates. As head coaches go, though, he is relatively long-lived. He was first hired by Tulsa in 2018 as an assistant and became head coach mid-way through that season when David Vaudreuil was fired. The team’s record under has improved every season so far. He was also on the preliminary list of candidates to take the DC United head coaching job after Ben Olsen was removed.
Goalkeeping coach is the very well-known Donovan Ricketts, who had a stellar playing career in England and the US. Also on staff is Nemanja Vuković, a Montenegrin with a long playing career that ended in Tulsa. The staff has been together for three years already and as such can be viewed as very stable.
The official roster currently lists 25 players, a more or less complete slate. That includes 10 players returning from 2020, so the core of the team is stable. In particular, goalkeeper Sean Lewis is back for his third season with Tulsa. He was listed as one of the top 5 keepers in the league this season after a standout year in 2020, capped by an 8-save performance in the playoff loss to El Paso. At the other end of the field the best performance was by Cuban striker Dario Suárez who logged a middling 8 goals. He also returns. Of the newcomers, by far the best-known is Jerome Kiesewetter, the German-American forward who spent most of his career in Germany, but has seen his star fade over the past couple of years. The remainder of the roster doesn’t seem very remarkable.
The schedule makers have been pretty vicious this season, if not outright sadistic, giving teams all sorts of strange headaches. Tulsa’s schedule is no exception.
They start off relatively easily, playing the very first day of the season on April 24th away at OKC Energy. The only other game that day, by the way, also features Central Division teams, with Louisville City hosting Atlanta United 2. They then play just 3 games in May and 5 in June. But that includes a 4-game road trip, which nicely ends at Birmingham on June 6th. Then they have another 5 games in July to continue the slow start. That means they play 20 games in August, September and October. That’s brutal.
The team’s non-divisional opponents are all in Texas: they host the Austin Bold and El Paso (which given the playoff game last year should be fiery) and visit Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio). All of those games are outside the height of summer, which is a small act of mercy.
The team’s preseason results are not encouraging. They predictably lost 3-0 to the Houston Dynamo of MLS, but also managed to lose 3-0 and 1-0 to USL League One side North Texas SC. Their only preseason win to date was a 5-0 pounding of League Two’s FC Wichita.
Many prognosticators are pegging Tulsa as the second-best team in the division. That’s hard to support at this stage. The team has a stable core roster and coaching staff, but the bulk of the squad is new, and the schedule could be punishing in the second half of the season. Add to that the poor preseason results and a moderately tough non-divisional schedule makes for a challenging year for Tulsa.
Final Grade: B-
That may be a fairly generous grade, but Tulsa is not a team to sleep on. Right now they look like possibly the #3 team in the Central Division. As such they are definitely a team the Legion needs to take points from if a home playoff game is going to be earned.