Cristian Mata Comes Home to Roughnecks

GTR Sports Writer

GREAT STRIKER: Mata has earned many honors in his soccer career, including at Union being named Oklahoma’s Gatorade Player of Year and Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. At TU he was selected conference Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. He was nominated to the All-America list and departed with 27 goals in two seasons.

From literally digging ditches to having a bobblehead night in his honor on June 17, Tulsa Roughnecks striker Cristian Mata has seen his life’s journey come miles and miles in a very short time.

A former standout goal scorer at Union High School and the University of Tulsa, the 22-year-old native of Mexico said his soccer future has been reborn as a member of the United Soccer League Roughnecks, all while remaining close to home.

“I almost quit on myself and quit on soccer,’’ says Mata, who left TU to participate in a Seattle Sounders combine and then tried out unsuccessfully for a Mexican first division under-20 team. “I had to get a job, and I didn’t wake up a day without knowing I had to get back out there.’’

Mata wound up in construction work, digging holes for underground cable. He quickly realized there was no future in the job and desperately longed for a career adjustment.

“I wasn’t using my feet,’’ Mata says of his best money-making asset. “I knew I wasn’t living up to my full potential. Trying out for a pro team and not making it was a wake-up call. I wasn’t working as hard as I needed to.

“I went home, and I felt like my family needed more from me financially and spiritually. I knew I needed to work harder to be a support for my family.’’

Mata lives with his widowed mother, Ana, who works in janitorial services at Union Schools. Helping take some of the burden off her shoulders was a major motivating factor in his goal to play professional soccer.

Steve Earle, the former Roughnecks player and Mata’s coach with the Tulsa Soccer Club, helped guide the 5-foot-9 forward in a different direction.

“I knew the Roughnecks were coming back last year, and at the time I wasn’t really playing soccer anymore,’’ says Mata, who joined the team in midseason. “One of my coaches (Earle) told me he wanted me to go back and play. I had something to offer in talent.

“I called the Roughnecks and they told me to come for a tryout. I was here for two or three weeks before they signed me. Now I feel pretty comfortable around the players and coaching staff. Coming in every day was a different environment for me. All the guys were in good shape, and I had to adjust to the game and its speed.”

Mata finished the 2015 season by scoring six goals in 15 games and drawing praise from coach David Irving.

“He’s a goal scorer. Wherever he’s been, he’s scored goals,’’ Irving says. “I’m a big believer in homegrown talent, and if there are players good enough to play at our level, why not give them a chance. He’s a great example of that.’’

Mata’s journey to Tulsa and the Roughnecks began in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a five-year-old, all he had to do was step outside his home and there was a concrete soccer pitch to play on. His mother’s side of the family was drenched in the tradition. His father’s side preferred baseball.

“Every day, I stepped outside, and I knew I had to get involved. I saw my older brothers play,’’ says Mata. “We moved to Tulsa when I was nine years old, and I went to Union. I like the atmosphere of soccer and how everyone approaches the game. I like how competitive it is, and I like winning and the passion for the game.’’

Mata tried football and wrestling in middle school at Union but found his true calling on the soccer field. After graduating in 2012, Mata had racked up about every honor he could. His 70 career goals helped him earn Oklahoma’s Gatorade Player of Year award and he was named both Union’s Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.

He couldn’t help but attract attention from TU. His older brother, Omar, was already a standout for the Hurricane and had been his teammate at Union. Mata was selected conference Player of the Year at Tulsa and Freshman of the Year. He was nominated to the All-America list and departed with 27 goals in two seasons. Then he left school for a professional tryout.

“I have a year and a half left and I do want to go back and finish my degree,’’ says Mata, majoring in communications and minoring in Spanish. “I want to go into sports management or coaching.’’

Before that day comes, Mata still has unfinished business ahead with the Roughnecks. He missed the first few games of the 2016 season with an ankle sprain and wants to make up for lost time. Again. His future could depend on it.

“This is my real job and I’m depending on this season. I want to play for a (Major League Soccer) team or any big club,’’ says Mata, who played indoor soccer with the Tulsa Revolution. “I lost three games (to injury) and I’ve got to rely on the next 27. I definitely feel more positive and enthusiastic coming back here.’’

In addition to scoring goals, Mata says his role includes assisting and defending as “much as I can.’’ His strengths are movement close to the goal and creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. He also likes to add quickness to his resume of skills. The Roughnecks appreciate that.

“We have a solid team this year and I have a big picture of us making the playoffs,’’ Mata says. “I think we’re underrated. The whole team is underrated. Nobody knows anything about Tulsa, and that can put a big responsibility on everyone.’’

Mata wouldn’t have it any other way. He has family pride at stake on and off the field.

“Being a local guy, I’ve got a lot of family, friends and coaches who are all here,’’ he says. “I may have 10 family members and another 10 to 15 friends and coaches who come to the games. It’s always nice on gameday to have someone to watch you. Since I’m a local guy, people know me more than the others.’’
Mata’s local fame and popularity is destined to grow even more when his head bobbles on June 17. He’s found out that’s a bit more fun than digging ditches.

Updated 04-25-2016

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