By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
A new name, new owners, new colors, new players and a new office. The same old desire to succeed.
While the Roughnecks are gone, professional soccer in Green Country is experiencing a rebirth, facing a new beginning as FC Tulsa begins play this summer at ONEOK Field.
A soccer renaissance is planned under the direction of the Craft Brothers, J.W., Ryan and Kyle, native Tulsan business executives who purchased the Roughnecks from the Tulsa Drillers ownership group a year ago. Michael Nsien has been retained as head coach for the United Soccer League season.
The coronavirus epidemic forced the USL to suspend operations on March 12.
“All along it’s been about figuring out a method that would be able for us to put fans and players in a safe position to do this,’’ said franchise president James Cannon. “As a group of players, coaches and staff, we’re ready to do whatever it takes to put the team back on the field. Our guys want to play and compete. They’re very adamant about that.’’
For FC Tulsa, team goals are simple.
“No. 1, we’re back on the field,’’ said Austin Gwin, team director of communications. “We want to put a winning product on the field, something fans have not had a lot of lately. We want to get fans back into the stadium and give them something they can be proud of, something they can come out and support. We want to build support back again.’’
Under the Roughnecks banner, the franchise compiled a 41-81-36 record in its tenure in the USL, averaging just 2.031 fans a game last season. Despite COVID-19 curtailing the 2020 season, Gwin believes good times are here again.
“We’re starting over from scratch and the fans won’t see much of the Roughnecks. Everything is new,’’ said Gwin, a graduate of David Lipscomb University and former employee of the Nashville USL club. “Our team is strong from front to back, forwards, midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. We don’t have many holes.
“The Western Conference is traditionally high-scoring and we do have enough high scorers to play with those teams. We’ve also got to be fortunate and keep away from injuries. We need to win our home games and draw on the road. If we do that, we’ll be sitting pretty.’’
USL executives recently announced the franchise will play in the five-team D Group, consisting of the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, Austin Bold FC, Oklahoma City Energy FC and San Antonio FC. The letters ‘FC’ stand for ‘football club,’ a traditional term for international professional soccer teams. FC Tulsa is scheduled to play each team in its group three times with a 16-game schedule comprising the season.
Chief among the “fresh faces’’ dotting the FC Tulsa roster are midfielder Lebo Moloto, striker Dario Suarez, Bradley Bourgeois, who played for the Roughnecks in 2017, and midfielder Ciaran Winters.
“The Craft brothers made an investment on the field and brought the payroll up to the most competitive payrolls in the league,’’ Gwin said. “They understand what it takes to be successful and they’ve brought in a lot of talent.’’
Moloto is a former all-league player who is said to be one of the USL’s best at his position. Suarez is a former Cuban international player and is expected to be a top scorer for FC Tulsa. Bourgeois played college soccer at TU and Winters is a product of the Tulsa youth soccer program.
“We’ve brought in players with high credentials,’’ said Gwin. “The Craft brothers have a passion for soccer and they want a quality team that will represent the community and give back to the city. Tulsa has a great music scene, but not one for a professional sports franchise that the city can rally behind.’’
Toward that end, FC Tulsa sports a new logo, featuring a bird soaring upward. Gwin said it was created by famed designer Matthew Wolff who has produced logos for soccer teams around world. The Art Deco design features a Scissor Tail Flycatcher, Oklahoma’s state bird, and represents a look to Tulsa’s upturned soccer future.
The franchise plans on literally giving back to Oklahoma and Tulsa. A $500,000 donation has already been given to the Philbrook Museum and funds have been donated to the COVID-19 fund in the city. The plan is to remain committed to the community, especially in a time of crisis, playing the national anthem before each game.
FC Tulsa did play one game before the coronavirus shutdown the season. The team tied Sacramento 1-1 on the road on March 7.
“We were on hiatus for two months and then the entire league did training in small groups,’’ Gwin said. “We will have a safety seating protocol in place when we turn to play. Fan safety in our major concern.
Gwin called the remainder of the 2020 season a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to win back fans from last year. The opportunity is to impress them enough to stay. He said season ticket purchases and inquiries have been encouraging.
“A successful season I think will be for us to make the playoffs,’’ said Gwin. “We’ve seen a lot of buy-in (from fans) during the pandemic and we won’t be satisfied until we’re selling out 5,000 seats a game. Winning breeds sellouts and so does scoring goals and having fun doing it. We will play with a lot of flair because our head coach and staff were able to bring in a lot of talent in the offseason that play well together.’’
FC Tulsa has a promotion going for fan club season ticket holders. They can attend games for $5, $10 or $15 and lock in the rate for as long as the team plays at ONEOK Field.