The Soul of the Game

by RJ Young

06/04/2014

All this man wants to do right now is find the damn game. It’s a Saturday in the middle of the European football calendar, so there’s got to be a soccer game on television. There’s got to be.

He leans across the bar, watching the barkeep click away at the remote, doing her best to satisfy his need to see some of the world’s best have a go at each other on a field as long as any Peyton Manning played on but nearly twice as wide. She goes to the TV’s guide for help, and finally finds a game.

The channel changer stops on the beIN Sports network. But the screen informs them their package doesn’t allow for this channel. They’ll have to contact their cable provider if they want to watch the Serie A today.

“Cheap bastards here,” Charlie Mitchell says inside Charlie Mitchell’s Modern Pub.

Mitchell, the first ever Tulsa Roughneck player, sits cross-armed at a table in front a blind-covered window that makes his white hair seem silver, his skin flush. Now he’s telling stories. Old stories. Stories about the enchanting country that raised him, made new by some characteristics that never left him.

“I’m sure you’ll pick up my accent,” he says.

Of course you do. Just as you pick up his wit, his sense of humor, and his love for a game that has begun to take hold of this nation enamored with balls oblong, balls stitched, and balls bounced. Mitchell, in his 60s now, began playing soccer about the time most folks begin grade school. He grew attached to it because, frankly, there weren’t a whole hell of a lot of choices in Paisley, Scotland, a town renowned for weaving and sewing patterns but still big enough to kick your ass.

***

Mitchell could swim or he could play soccer. It wasn’t that tough a choice for him, and he didn’t mind playing the game from sunup to sundown and twice on Saturday. He’d play for his school team in the morning and his church team in the evening, although he also had other hobbies as video games, which he could play in the night with games as League of Legends, which he was actually pretty good at it after getting some ELO BOOST from the Elitist Gaming site, one time.

The teams didn’t change that much either, so he got to know all of the kids he played against and all the dips and dots on that high-cut patch of grass they called a pitch. In the winter, the field was cold and hard. In the summer, when it would rain often, the field was muddy, and Mitchell had to learn how to chip from the kind of lie that would give even Phil Mickelson fits.

If pro soccer’s going to return to Tulsa, it’s probably going to have its best chance to succeed in downtown Tulsa at a state-of-the-art venue like we have at ONEOK Field. 

Those games were always competitive, and almost no one was substituted on or off. Eleven players would start the game, and if a player got hurt midway through it, his team either played with 10 men or just told the poor injured fella to play close to the touchline.

“You just put them on the wing, and hopefully they could cross the ball every now and again because that was kind of the weakest position,” Mitchell says.

Route One [1] football was the philosophy those teams played by for the most part, but some of them grew more sophisticated as their players muscled through puberty with tree trunks for thighs and peach fuzz for mustaches. Mitchell played on one of the better local high school teams in the land called Camphill High. [2] Back then, scouts didn’t necessarily go out of their way to find diamonds in the rough. They just went straight to the mines, and Mitchell’s team fielded some gems.

Some folks from a local pro team, St. Mirren Football Club, saw Mitchell play, saw his team win, and thought enough of him to offer him an amateur professional contract. They would pay for his kit, boots, and other expenses. Mitchell’s contract also put him on the hook for certain chores. He’d be responsible for cleaning the true professionals’ boots, painting the railings in the stands of the stadium, and whatever else management thought should go on his honey-do list.

If Mitchell’s contract sounds an awful lot like he was going through trade school, that’s because he was. The official term for what St. Mirren was asking him to become was professional apprentice. At 17 and trying to make a living playing a kids’ game, he saw no reason to turn down the deal.

He spent his first year with the Buddies.[3] as a youth player, which meant he was on the team behind the reserve team, which was behind the first team. He was third string. Making it to a pro team didn’t mean actually making it. There was still work to do. There were still challenges, and this was one of many in his professional soccer career.

 

A Keeper Keeps Coming

 

Years ago, Sonny Dalesandro forced himself to give up playing professional soccer. He was older and more realistic than he was in his youth. The time had come to put away a young man’s dreams. “It’s over, and there’s nothing romantic about it,” he said. “It’s a hard, cold fact of life that I had to deal with. The demons from my playing days, they’re always going to be there. There’s nothing I can do to make my playing career end any differently than it did.”

For a good long while, Dalesandro thought he’d be a player. Don’t we all? What glory is there in simply paying the men who win the trophies? He got serious about trying to go pro after attending Cascia Hall and being on the losing end of a few state championships. He ended up getting drafted by a National Professional Soccer League team in Tampa Bay, which promptly traded his rights to a franchise in Wisconsin called the Milwaukee Wave.

At 19, he was the backup goalkeeper on the squad behind Victor Nogueira, a man many consider to be one of the greatest indoor keepers of all time. On January 31, 1997, Dalesandro saw his first game action for the team in a 21 – 10 victory against the Toronto Shooting Stars. He bounced around indoor soccer over the next several years. He played against some good players in some nice cities, but never came close to playing for the kind of clubs and in the kind of stadiums he once envisioned. He had his restaurant, Dalesandro’s Italian Cuisine, so he didn’t have to grind it out as a keeper on mediocre indoor teams. But the thought of never making it ate at him.

He’d carried those thoughts and feelings for 10 years when he traveled north to Wichita to see what the reincarnation of the Wichita Wings, a Major Indoor Soccer League team, looked like. He watched the game, knowing he could still see it well, knowing he could still read it well. He spoke with the Wings’ coaches after the game, and they saw no reason why he couldn’t help them if he got himself fit. They told him he wouldn’t start, but he’d play. That got Dalesandro going.

He worked into shape. He started drilling with a goalkeeper trainer, and he mentally prepared himself for what he thought lay ahead of him—teenage and 20-something kids who are bigger, stronger, faster than he remembered. Then reality set in.[4] His restaurant lost a couple fellas who worked in the kitchen, and he was reminded his restaurant is how he makes his living. How could he leave his business during the week to make training three hours away for a pauper’s sum? He couldn’t do it, but his competitive nature didn’t have to die along with his pro playing career though. And he wasn’t going to let it.

Dalesandro kept playing on a men’s league team, one he helped start in 2005 called the Boston Avenue Athletic Club, nicknamed the Athletics. The club was named for a tiny strip of Tulsa where Dalesandro’s restaurant is located. Over the years, with Dalesandro helping run the club, it became fairly competitive. It didn’t take him long to wonder what he might be able to do if he really went after making a business out of his true passion—soccer. He made some calls.

Now, he’s here, past the green and yellow wallpapered front room of the Tulsa Athletics office, decorated with insignia. Walk by a trophy celebrating first place in the South Central Division of the National Premier Soccer League. Glance at the picture frame commemorating a shootout loss before a crowd of 5,788 to Mexico’s vaunted Club América, and then stroll down the whitewashed hallway to an office on the right.

His office is the same one where he shot a funny short with former Tulsa Roughnecks Bill Caskey and Victor Moreland, a nod to his marketing savvy and legitimate need to incorporate the forbearers of Tulsa’s pro soccer tradition. Dalesandro sits at his desk with the kind of salt-and-pepper mohawk you saw in Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video and Justin Bieber’s smiling mug shot. His torso is clad in a blue and red plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up just far enough to reveal his tattooed left forearm. The top two buttons are left undone, so a bush of hair can punch from his chest. This ain’t your daddy’s professional sports owner.

To his right is a game-worn Giorgio Chinaglia jersey,[5]which his former high school coach, Athletics coach Joey Ryan, gave him as a present. A little farther right hangs his 1996 USISL Rookie of the Year plaque, an award he won while playing for a less successful, semi-professional team that was named after the Tulsa Roughnecks and was coached by Moreland, but held none of the panache or style of those early 1980s teams. But there was nothing Dalesandro, a former Cascia Hall goalkeeper, could do about that then. He just wanted to play, wanted to be a part of the Roughnecks.

The original Roughnecks are one of the reasons he’s here now as the chairman of the Athletics, trying to make a go of it in a league recognized as fourth division football in a country where First Division football is played with pads, helmets, and pigskin. Dalesandro and his partner in his Athletics venture, Dr. Tom Kern, were spoon-fed the Roughnecks as kids.

“We watched that be the catalyst to Tulsa becoming a soccer community,” Dalesandro said. “It played a huge part in my life in the sense that I knew I wanted to be around the game.”

***

To join the National Premier Soccer League as an owner, you have to secure a facility that holds at least 500 people and is equipped with locker rooms, a press box, and restrooms. You have to be able to afford the expansion fee. In 2015, that fee will be $12,500—or bit more than you probably paid for your first car. Once the league’s members approve your joining the NPSL, you’re in. If it seems as simple to buy a franchise in the NPSL as it would be for Einstein to solve a Rubik’s Cube, that’s because it is designed to be. The NPSL is a non-profit with a mission to grow the sport in a sustainable way. It’s a bus league made up of four regions with several conferences based on geography. Most of the teams in the league field squads made up of mostly amateurs.[6] Before you can build a championship side though, you need a home. Dalesandro finalized the lease on the old Drillers Stadium at 15th Street and Yale Avenue just 41 days before their first home kickoff in 2013, at a price of $5,500 a month. But there was a reason they were willing to shell out that amount of cash for a dilapidated building that had sat mostly vacant for nearly four years.

“We didn’t want to play at high school,” Dalesandro said. “We wanted to have that professional feel, and even though this isn’t a soccer-specific stadium, it’s a professional stadium. It has a really great nostalgic feel when you walk through the gates here.”

There was one other reason, too. “Beer. It was paramount to me, especially, that if you’re going to a match, you should be able to drink beer. It sounds funny, but the supporters love that. It creates an environment. There’s an atmosphere. You can’t have beer in high schools, and there’s no other stadium in Tulsa where we can sell beer and play soccer. So that, sort of, in a way, handcuffed us to this place.”

They built a beer garden and temporary stands in the outfield. They asked local vendors with food trucks to set up in right field—not too far from the Jupiter jumps—and they painted the outfield wall in the green and gold team colors.[7] They set up a fan section for the ultimate Athletics fans[8] and set the general admission price at just $5. Their goal in 2013 was to get as many people through the gates of the baseball stadium to see a soccer game as possible. And it worked.

In their inaugural season, the Athletics averaged nearly 3,300 fans a game.[9] From his office chair, sitting below an Athletics scarf that reads “Tulsa Til I Die,” Dalesandro explains the franchise is still only just beginning, only starting to figure out what it’s capable of accomplishing. His ambition for the club, though, is lofty. “Our goal here with the Athletics is to bring the MLS to Tulsa,” he says.

He wants to do that without riding the coattails of what the original Roughnecks built while paying homage to the men who did the heavy lifting. It’s the reason Dalesandro and Kern chose to keep the nickname and crest from the Boston Athletic Club. “To try to re-create what they did by name is to do what they did a disservice,” Dalesandro says.

Thing is, his goal has been taken up by a separate group of professional sports owners downtown. The group has already secured a stadium. It has already bought the rights to a franchise in a league above the NPSL in the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Its team will begin play in 2015, and it ain’t shy about using the Roughneck name.

 

American Fútbol

 

If Mitchell could display ability and wherewithal, he knew he could work his way up to the St. Mirren first team in time. It didn’t take nearly as long as he thought to catch a break, though. By the end of his first year with the club, agents from overseas were beginning to take note of young up-and-comers like him. Players like him would soon make up a new professional soccer league someone had the grand notion to start in America. It called for young fellas like Mitchell and old warhorses with name recognition to fill rosters on teams in Miami, Baltimore, Kansas City, Oakland, and dozens of other cities known more for their football than their football.

One of those agents got ahold of Mitchell and said he could get him a contract in one of three countries on two continents. He had his choice of playing professionally in South Africa, Canada, or the United States. Mitchell couldn’t find any fault in playing soccer in the U.S. and signed a deal to play for the Rochester Lancers in Rochester, New York, as a part of the newly formed North American Soccer League.

The league was just two years old then but growing like a brushfire in drought-stricken country. Mitchell was down to ride. In his first season with the Lancers, they won the NASL title, and he was named to the league All-Star team. He’d make four more All-Star teams, earn the captain’s armband in Rochester, and appear in 121 games for the Lancers before the biggest club in the NASL came calling in 1976. He made the five-hour trip south to New York City and began playing on the back line of the New York Cosmos.

The Cosmos were the flagship franchise of the league. With players like perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time in Pelé and other world-renowned players like Keith Eddy,[10] and Chinaglia on the roster, they’d become must-watch soccer. Folks who’d never shown an interest in the game before came out to see the South American and European stars in their element. In 1976, the team averaged more than 18,000 spectators per game at Yankee Stadium where they played their home games because they’d outgrown Downing Stadium’s 22,000-seat capacity. In later years they’d average north of 47,000 fans for regular season games. It was during that ’76 season that Mitchell put his stamp on the league in a game against the Miami Toros—with a bit of help from one of the game’s greatest players.

Mitchell was sprinting down the touchline on an overlap toward the right corner flag of the opposing goal in the house that Ruth built when he received a cross from the other side. He took a soft first touch to give himself space, and then lifted the ball into the 18-yard box. Then he looked up. Pelé was mid-somersault and throwing his right foot at the ball. It crashed into the back of the net. The sequence made ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Folks of a certain age remember that bicycle kick. Mitchell recollects Pelé’s gesture when the final whistle blew. “I’ll always remember after the game was over he gave me his shirt,” Mitchell says. “He said, ‘Tell your grandchildren about this, Charlie, because that’s the first bicycle kick I’ve scored in the United States.’ ”

That was the highlight of a short stay with the Cosmos for Mitchell. He seldom saw playing time in New York City. After playing no fewer than 14 games in any season with the Lancers, he’d played just seven total with the Cosmos. He was just 28 years old then, and he wanted to play. He asked to be traded.

It didn’t take long for folks to show interest. One of them was Hubert Vogelsinger. Vogelsinger offered Mitchell a chance to play with a new franchise he was coaching called Team Hawaii. Mitchell made for the islands.

Team Hawaii was built on the ashes of the San Antonio Thunder. After two seasons in the NASL, the Thunder had drawn just a little more than 5,000 fans per game. Soccer hadn’t taken hold of Texas quite yet. The club’s owner, Ward Lay Jr., wanted to see if he could still get his money’s worth out of the franchise. After all, who wouldn’t want to play in Hawaii?

The team was good, making the playoffs in its only year in the NASL, even after Vogelsinger was sacked with 10 games left in the season. Mitchell was promoted to player-manager and guided Team Hawaii to the playoffs. Along the way he marked truly great players like George Best and beat him. Or, at least Team Hawaii did.

After dropping a game on April 17, 1977, to Best’s Los Angeles Aztecs 6–0, Team Hawaii got one back with a 6–5 win on July 22, 1977, in Honolulu. The sixth goal was scored in extra time.

Unlike most fledgling clubs, winning more than they it lost wasn’t the problem for Team Hawaii. Getting folks to play in Honolulu wasn’t a problem either. Getting folks to watch the team play was something else entirely—on top of Team Hawaii’s travel predicament. It wasn’t uncommon for the team to play five consecutive away games for logistical reasons. Frequently, teams would only fly to Honolulu after playing against at least one other left coast opponent. After just one season on the island, Lay had had enough. He put the team up for sale. The cities that emerged as the frontrunners for the franchise were Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Tulsa.

 

A New Game in Town

 

The headline in the Tulsa World read “Pro Soccer headed to ONEOK Field in 2015.” The art for sportswriter Mike Brown’s story in the December 19, 2013, edition of the broadsheet showed Tulsa Drillers general manager Mike Melega in a blue suit and red tie holding up a red scarf like a triumphant Liverpool fan following a lopsided win in the Merseyside Derby.

‘Beer. It was paramount to me, especially, that if you’re going to a match, you should be able to drink beer.’

But it wasn’t a win over a hated rival he was celebrating. It was the Drillers’ purchase of a professional United Soccer Leagues Pro team. The scarf read USL PRO TULSA 2015, which is as succinct as it is non-descript. The story was placed above the fold, above a story about an Oklahoma Sooner wide receiver who would soon lead his team to Sugar Bowl glory—so you know it was important.

A little over a month after the story was published, I walked inside the $39.2 million downtown complex built for a Double-A ball club and could practically smell the new money. Unlike the Athletics’ setup, there’s a stately secretary on the lower level of the first floor to greet me. Her first order of business is to ascertain my order of business. Duly satisfied, she asked me to sit and wait, giving me time to examine the wood floor, the flat screen TV, copies of Sports Illustrated on the table, cushioned chairs in front of the executive entrance, and the red USL PRO TULSA 2015 scarf adorning the back of her chair.

It’s not long before Melega bursts through an entrance to take me toward the elevator that leads to the Drillers front office. On the ride up, I can’t help but notice the two fliers framed near the switches. One advertises the cost of a business suite for the upcoming baseball season. The other shows the rewards for a $25 season ticket deposit for USL PRO soccer in Tulsa—next year. Once on the office floor, I stroll the hallway with Melega, stopping to pick up Drillers director of media and public relations, Brian Carroll, before taking a seat in Melega’s office.[11] Melega didn’t come up a soccer fan. Baseball raised him, and baseball pays him. So why are he and his bosses, Drillers co-chairmen Dale and Jeff Hubbard, getting into the football business? Well, Melega saw an old friend, John Allgood, getting into the soccer business out west[12] and called him to see what the fuss was about. Besides being a baseball man,[13] Allgood is a person with a long title.

He’s the senior executive vice president for business development for Oklahoma City’s minor league hockey team, the Barons. The Barons are owned by Prodigal LLC, an event management company in Oklahoma City. On July 2, 2013, Prodigal’s CEO, Bob Funk Jr., formally announced Prodigal had secured a USL PRO franchise for Oklahoma City. The franchise, now called the Oklahoma City Energy Football Club, or Energy FC, began its inaugural season in April. While landing a USL PRO squad for Oklahoma City, Prodigal secured the rights to a franchise in Tulsa, too. It can cost between $75,000 and $750,000 to purchase a USL franchise depending on which of the leagues an ownership group wishes to join. For a USL PRO franchise, USL’s top league, the operating budget can be upward of $3 million.

There’s reason for a USL PRO team to cost more than an NPSL team. Though each is considered a developmental league in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, USL PRO stands one rung higher than NPSL. USL PRO also recently formed an agreement with MLS that ensures MLS franchises will either enlist a USL PRO team as an affiliate or create its own USL PRO team in place of an affiliation with an existing one.

The affiliation? An exchange of players that is similar to baseball’s minor league system. Energy FC has already formed an affiliation with MLS’s Sporting Kansas City. There’s more. USL PRO teams don’t have to remain in the USL, and, for that matter, neither do NPSL teams. But USL PRO teams have a track record for joining the ranks of the MLS, especially lately.

Last November Orlando City Soccer Club became the 21st club to join MLS after just three years in USL PRO. The team begins play in America’s top flight in 2015, year 20 of the MLS. English footballer and all-around hunk David Beckham recently exercised the option in his MLS player contract to purchase an MLS franchise. He plans to locate it in Miami, Florida, at the bargain price expansion fee price of $25 million. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said he believes there will be 24 teams in the league by 2020.

There’s been at least one prominent case of an MLS team playing in a baseball stadium as a USL franchise: The Portland Timbers. The Timbers began as an NASL franchise in 1975. But, like the original Roughnecks, the Timbers folded just a few years before the league did in 1982. Then, in 1985, a group revived the club as an independent with a selection of amateur and pro players in various leagues, until it folded again in 1990. It was resurrected once more in 2001, and, after playing in the A-League and then the USL First Division, the Timbers got the call from Garber and MLS.

The Timbers recently shared PGE Park with the Portland Beavers, a Triple-A baseball club, as well as the Portland State Viking football team. When the city was awarded an MLS franchise in 2009, the Portland city council voted to kick the baseball club out so renovations could be made to make the facility more soccer specific, though the Portland State football team still plays home games there. They also renamed the place Providence Park. This year, Providence Park will host the 2014 MLS All-Star game. But the Portland Beavers[14] are no more.

***

When Prodigal learned through Melega that the Drillers were interested in becoming the majority owner of the Tulsa franchise, the Drillers’ management was excited. Tulsa would become a natural soccer rival for Prodigal’s newest sports venture, and there hasn’t been a pro sports turnpike rivalry since the Oklahoma City Blazers and Tulsa Oilers were both in the Central Hockey League.[15] It made sense for both parties to partner. The Drillers own the majority of the team while Prodigal still owns a minority share.

“We’ve got this beautiful venue,” Melega said. “If pro soccer’s going to return to Tulsa, it’s probably going to have its best chance to succeed in downtown Tulsa at a state-of-the-art venue like we have at ONEOK Field. We have a fantastic front office staff, so we feel like it’s good for the city. It’s good to bring more bodies to downtown Tulsa, and it’s a great opportunity for the city to perhaps get back on the radar of MLS for future expansion opportunities
as well.”

At the time, there was still the issue of the team’s name though. They had to secure the coveted Tulsa Roughnecks name, right? Turns out, it wasn’t so coveted. And the Drillers didn’t secure it.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the name “Tulsa Roughnecks” has been filed for five times and had lain abandoned for seven years when Prodigal Soccer LLC applied for the rights to “Tulsa Roughnecks FC” on September 19, 2013. Following the Drillers announcement, they enlisted the city to help vote on what the team should be called.

The finalists on the ballot were Tulsa Roughnecks FC, Tulsa Strike, FC Tulsa, and Oil City FC. The Drillers had applied for the other three names under its soccer business name, Tulsa Professional Soccer LLC, two weeks before the Tulsa Roughnecks FC name won almost 50 percent of the vote. Even before the finalists were announced, Melega lauded Prodigal for protecting the name. “I think that was probably a good move by their people and a forward-thinking idea when they had secured franchise rights for Oklahoma City and Tulsa,” he said. Tulsa loves its roughnecks—soccer and otherwise.

 

The Signature Win

 

Lay Jr., a Texas man, moved his Team Hawaii franchise for the third time. This time he settled it in Tulsa and renamed it after the slobber-knocking, tool-pushing roustabouts who made up the backbone of the town that folks used to call the Oil Capital of the World. Then he hired a coach. The first man charged with making the Tulsa Roughnecks into a winning football club in 1978 was Bill Foulkes.

Foulkes’ first order of business in Tulsa was making sure Mitchell didn’t go playing—or managing—for anybody else. He sat Mitchell down and told how much he admired him, how he loved the way he went about his business on the pitch, and asked if he wouldn’t mind becoming his player-assistant coach? “It was an honor for me to be an assistant player-coach to Bill Foulkes,” Mitchell said.

He was the only player on the Team Hawaii roster Foulkes kept. The Roughnecks finished their inaugural season 15–15, though, and lost in the first round of the playoffs. For his efforts, Foulkes was canned after his only season in Tulsa. Alan Hinton was brought in to replace him.

Hinton told Mitchell he wanted to keep him, but when Eddy offered Mitchell a job as a player-coach for another franchise in Toronto, Mitchell decided he could stand the cold after all. He signed on to play for Eddy and the Toronto Blizzard. That seemed to be the end of Mitchell’s career in Tulsa.

Mitchell played every minute of every game the Blizzard played in 1979. However, the Blizzard didn’t perform much better than Mitchell’s last team. The Blizzard lost more games (16) than it won (14) that year but made it all the way to the quarterfinals of the NASL playoffs before bowing out to the Cosmos.

Mitchell was 32 years old. He had played for a decade in the NASL and was thinking of moving back to Tulsa, where he still owned a house.

“I always thought I’d come back and retire in Tulsa, retire from soccer,” he said. “I like the town. I like the standard of living.” So when Roughnecks general manager Noel Lemon[16] called Mitchell to tell him he was no longer happy with Hinton and asked would Mitchell like to manage the team, he was happier than Marie Antoinette in a TastyKake factory.

He took the bench in Tulsa as a full-fledged manager—no more player-coach—for the 1979–80 indoor season and 1980 outdoor season. Later that year, Mitchell and the Roughnecks put the first of a few lasting marks on the city many of them would come to call home.

***

They had to put extra bleachers around Skelly Stadium—what you now know as H.A. Chapman Stadium—at the University of Tulsa’s campus to fit all the folks who’d bought tickets. The word was out.

On April 26, 1980, the Roughnecks played host to the NASL’s premier team, the Cosmos, and more than 30,000 folks wanted a ticket. The Cosmos were still a club full of world-famous players.[17] Players like Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and Franz Beckenbauer. Like Vladislav Bogicevic and Julio Cesar Romero. Oscar Bernardi and Johan Neeskens. They were all in Tulsa, and they’d come to win. “You don’t block those guys out,” Moreland said. “You can block everything else out, but you have to concentrate on those players. It was every kid’s dream to play against those guys.”

Mitchell knew Cosmos acting manager and technical director, Julio Mazzei, had a great tea, that the Cosmos had taken four out of five from the Roughnecks, and that the Roughnecks hadn’t beaten the Cosmos in three years. He also knew the stars Mazzei had traveled west with were past their primes, while Mitchell had young and hungry fellas with everything to prove playing for him. He wanted to use that.

The Roughnecks were made up of Americans, Germans, Northern Irishmen, Englishmen, and Scots whose idea of football bordered on Barry Swizter’s. Mitchell told his team to go on the attack. Make the game as tough and hard as possible—play Roughneck football. And so they did. The Roughnecks led the league in fouls per game heading into the contest and reveled in their physicality against the twinkle-toed Cosmos. The referee that day, Dante Maglio, called 59 fouls and doled out five yellow cards during the game. Early on, it didn’t seem to matter. Chinaglia found the net with his 99th goal of the season just 24 minutes in. The Cosmos led 1–0 at halftime.

Then, in the 62nd minute, one of Tulsa’s emigrated sons, Moreland, knocked a corner kick from Alan Woodward into the back of the net. Tie game. All of a sudden, the Roughnecks were not only in the game but had a chance to win. They only needed one more good opportunity to complete the dream, and it came when Caskey came free and dribbled into a 1-on-1 showdown with Cosmos keeper Hubert Birkenmeier. Caskey put the go-ahead goal in the back of the onion bag in the 79th minute. The crowd began to celebrate the win—just too early.

“So with 10 minutes in the game, people were coming up to me clapping,” Mitchell said. “I’m on the bench, and everybody’s going, ‘Oh, man! We’re going to beat the Cosmos!’ And I had to keep telling people, ‘This is the Cosmos. The game’s not over yet.’ Seriously, it was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

Knowing Beckenbauer and Chinaglia alone could score three goals in 10 minutes, Mitchell implored his players to keep possession, to not let the Cosmos anywhere near ball. His Roughnecks held firm and rode out a 2–1 victory. The headline in the next day’s Tulsa World read “Rufnex Forced Cosmos Out of Their Orbit.”

“They’re not used to playing from behind,” Roughneck Jo Edvaldsson  told the World. “They have seven or eight superstars out there. But we have a team of players who care about each other.  You didn’t see them going after tackles. We have more character. We deserved to win it.”

“It was definitely the greatest game I ever coached,” Mitchell says. “Or they ever played.”

Mitchell didn’t make it past the 1981 season after the Roughnecks finished 15–17 in 1980, but he’d laid the groundwork for what was to come. The assistant coach he hired, Terry Hennessy,[18] took over the team and guided it to the first winning season (17–15) in franchise history. Two years later, Hennessy led the Roughnecks to their first and only league championship in the 1983 Soccer Bowl with a 2–0 win against the Blizzard. The team folded the following year.

The ’83 Soccer Bowl remains Tulsa’s crowning pro soccer achievement, an achievement the Athletics and Roughnecks FC are chasing. But they’ll need more than trophies to bring a major-league sports franchise to Tulsa, and MLS might be the city’s last chance to make that dream happen. Today, with MLS becoming big business and the popularity of soccer growing with each year, a fight is brewing for the soccer soul of Tulsa.

Footnotes:  

1. Route One football is a singular attack on the defense using long passes—mostly through the air—to earn shots on goal. It’s a less glamorous and more physical style of play than the beautiful artistic style some teams, notably Brazil’s national team, are famous for.

2. Camphill High School later merged with another school in 1988 to create Gleniffer High.

3. St. Mirren’s F.C. owns two nicknames: Saints and Buddies.

4. Good thing too. After two seasons, the Wichita Wings folded following the 2012–13 season—for the second time.

5. The jersey is the kind of gift that can—and did—bring an NASL-geek like Dalesandro to tears.

6. That’s another quirk in the NPSL system. The league is structured so a team can be classified as either professional or amateur. This is a necessity for some teams like the Athletics, who field a team comprised mostly of high school and college-age players, particularly from the neighboring University of Tulsa. By classifying themselves as amateur, the Golden Hurricane players who also want to be Athletics don’t forfeit their NCAA eligibility.

7. When I asked Dalesandro why he picked green and gold as the team’s colors, he said, “Green is for Green Country, and trophies are gold, baby.”

8. “Ultras,” they’re called.

9. For perspective, according to the MLS Attendance blog, the worst average attendance during the 2013 MLS regular season was set by Chivas USA at 8,366. The best average attendance for a team belonged to the Seattle Sounders at 44,038.

10. Following the end of his professional career, Eddy founded the Tulsa Soccer Club.

11. A space bigger than my apartment.

12. i.e., Oklahoma City

13. Allgood is the former executive director of the Oklahoma City Redhawks.

14. The Portland Beavers moved to Arizona to become the Tucson Padres in 2011. In April 2014, the franchise relocated.

15. The Blazers folded in 2009. The Barons play in the American Hockey League. The Oilers play in the Central Hockey League.

16. Lemon said around the time he hired MItchell, “We’ve only been in the league two and a half years and already half the teams hate us. Give me another two years and we’ll have them all.”

17. That Cosmos team was so good that the NASL pitted an NASL Select team against it on September 24, 1980.

18. Hennessey was in his second stint as a Roughneck assistant. He had coached the team in 1978.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 9, May 1, 2014.