Tulsa Athletics: Growing Local Enthusiasm

Managing Editor

CONFERENCE CHAMPS: Tulsa Athletics player Akeil Barrett attempts to score during the conference championship game against the San Antonio Corinthians on July 13. The Athletics won that game, 4-2, to gain its second consecutive South Central Conference championship.

Courtesy Brett Rojo

Soccer roots were planted very early for Sonny Dalesandro, co-owner of the Tulsa Athletics.

“At six years old, I would go to sleep with my shin guards and soccer shoes on,” he says.

His exposure to the sport began younger than that though. He remembers learning the sport at age two: his babysitter’s father helped to start one of the first soccer clubs in Tulsa.

He continued in the sport and played professionally for five years; he was first recruited at 18 years old by the Milwaukee Wave.

Years later, after returning to Tulsa, Dalesandro, who also owns Dalesandro’s, a local Italian restaurant started by his father, and Dr. Tommy Kern, a childhood friend and fellow soccer player, began efforts in 2012 to restore soccer in Tulsa.

“Soccer has been here before and worked so that gives us a leg up,” says Dalesandro.

He references Tulsa’s previous professional team the Roughnecks fondly, with what can only be described as hallowed respect and pride, and wishes to see that past love of soccer restored in Tulsans, the 2014 World Cup proving the love of the game is alive and growing throughout the country, including locally.

“With every World Cup, there is significant growth in the U.S. afterwards,” says Dalesandro. “I’m excited to see what soccer looks like in another four years.”

As Dalesandro and Kern worked to form the Tulsa Athletics, they approached county officials about using the old Drillers Stadium at 15th Street and Yale Avenue. After the Drillers moved to ONEOK Field, its old home remained vacant, which did not sit well with Dalesandro and Kern.

“Tulsans don’t want to see things from their past sitting and rotting,” says Dalesandro.

Besides maintaining a piece of history, utilizing the old stadium offers other positive points: its design: “it’s got great sight line, every seat offers a view,” “it’s got a nostalgic aspect, everyone in the city has been there,” the stadium provides “a very professional feel in comparison to other teams in the Athletics’ league,” and fourth, as is the case with most sporting events, “we wanted a place where we could serve beer because that is a big part of the soccer culture,” Dalesandro says.

Carrying further that soccer culture feel, Dalesandro and Kern also made sure to cater Athletics games to not solely the soccer faithful but also families and those just learning about the sport.

The games feature a supporter section where fans sing throughout the game’s 90 minutes-a European tradition that has accompanied the sport over the Atlantic.
In the outfield, family-friendly activities are set up in addition to food trucks.
“We wanted to form connections with Tulsans, reach out to more than just soccer fans.”

And the numbers prove that Tulsans are eager to support its team. Attendance at Athletics games currently ranks the 28th highest in the country and first in the team’s division.

The team’s record, surely, has played a role in the continued fan enthusiasm.

On July 13, the Athletics beat the San Antonio Corinthians to gain its second consecutive South Central Conference championship. The team went on to the South Region Semifinals where it defeated Upward Stars on July 19 but fell to Chattanooga the following evening in the South Region Finals.

Dalesandro hopes to continue to improve the team’s division, the franchise having already received an offer from the North American Soccer League to move to the second tier, which Dalesandro would like to see occur once the team has secured additional funding. “Our goal is to bring a first division sport to town. Tulsans deserve to have a top tier sport here that they’re proud of,” he says.

The Tulsa Athletics is made up of college players and former professional soccer players, such as the team captain, Daniel Wasson, and “every player on the team has a tie to Tulsa,” Dalesandro says.

While the 2015 season will welcome a second Tulsa soccer team, the Roughnecks, in the United Soccer League Pro, Dalesandro appreciates the hometown aspect of the Athletics. “It’s important (for the team) to be for Tulsans, by Tulsans.”

Dalesandro is also confident that the sport will continue to grow. “Soccer is approachable . . . and it’s the sport with the greatest potential for growth. The game is going to take over.”

Updated 07-28-2014

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