Saint Louis FC: Rivals to the East

Saint Louis FC and their loyal supporters, the St. Louligans, are gearing up for their second year in the USL. They will look to improve upon their 9th place finish in the eastern conference during the 2015 season. Tulsa and Saint Louis met only once last season during the regular season, with STLFC winning 2-0 at ONEOK Field. This season, however, STLFC is moving to the Western conference and will face the Roughnecks at least 4 times during the regular season. I decided to find out a little more about STLFC by reaching out to their General Manager, Jeremy Alumbaugh. We talked about the last season as well as the upcoming 2016 season and caught up on a Roughneck fan favorite from 2015’s season.

The 2015 season for STLFC had it’s up and downs, with the team finishing just outside the playoffs in their inaugural season. Alumbaugh explained, “We started out okay, but hit a bump after the U.S. Open Cup. We made it to the Fourth Round of the Cup and played at Sporting Kansas City, in front of the biggest crowd ever to attend an Open Cup match. We didn’t get the result, but came away with a 1-0 loss [to a Major League Soccer team].” Up to that point, STLFC was 5-4-5 (W-L-T). Following the Open Cup, STLFC ran into some injuries and unfavorable results, going 3-8-4. However, STLFC would finish strong by winning their last two matches, including a 2-1 home win over rivals, Louisville City. Alumbaugh praised the coaching staff and team for their continued efforts through the end of the season.

Although the 2015 season ended on somewhat of a high note, STLFC’s challenges were far from over. During the off season, Saint Louis experienced historic flooding. As a result, STLFC’s home stadium, World Wide Technology Soccer Park, was completely underwater. Alumbaugh stated, “We’re getting everything in place in time for the home opener against Tulsa. The turf is laid in the stadium and the practice fields, locker rooms, and offices are ready to go. In fact, we moved into our offices last week. There will be some little things to work out between here and kick-off, but we’ll be alright.” STLFC’s home opener will be April 16th against the Roughnecks.

STLFC’s move to the Western Conference is an exciting change for STLFC’s staff. “Being here in Saint Louis, smack-dab in the middle of the country, we’re used to either [traveling] to the east or to the west. We are excited about [joining the Western Conference], because we have good relationships with Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Sacramento. We are looking at expanding those relationships with other teams out there. STLFC will continue playing Louisville City and newcomers, FC Cincinnati, twice each. Getting to Oklahoma City [for example], is easier for our fans. Even in places like Sacramento, we may not have a lot, or any, supporters making that trip, but it’s a great atmosphere to play in.”

We talked about several of the players on the roster, including Chad Bond, who made the move to STLFC during the off-season. Alumbaugh, “Chad is doing well. We knew he would, as he was such a big piece for you guys [Tulsa Roughnecks] last year. He’s a veteran and we were missing that piece in the middle. We have some younger players growing into that role, but you can’t fast-forward experience. Getting Chad in here was a priority for us and worked out well. He is acclimating himself very well with the players and coaches. He really loved Tulsa, which means we’ll have to work hard to make him feel welcome here in Saint Louis.”

Jeremie Lynch and Jamiel Hardware will return to STLFC, along with other key players from 2015’s team. Lynch scored STLFC’s initial goal against Tulsa, last year. Alumbaugh also mentioned, “Jamiel has had a great preseason. He had a broken hand last year, but really came back and had a strong finish to the season. Sam Fink played every minute possible, last year. James Musa, at center back who played a lot of minutes last year, will be back this season.” On the back line, Musa and Fink will be joined by defenders Brandon Barklage, Chad Vandegriffe, and Oskar Gasecki; all had significant playing time in 2015.

STLFC also has several goalkeepers and defenders from the 2015 campaign returning for the 2016 season. Goalkeepers, Mark Pais (8 USL starts) and Alex Riggs (1 USL start) will return. In addition to Pais and Riggs, Ryan Thompson will join the group from the Pittsburg Riverhounds of the USL (he had 10 starts in 2015). One of the key departures of 2015’s team was goalkeeper Alec Kann, who started in 19 USL matches between the posts, left for Sporting Kansas City. Former MLS super draftee and Houston Dynamo defender, AJ Cochran will look to bolster the defense. Patrick Doody, who started in 18 USL matches in 2015, has returned to STLFC’s MLS affiliate, Chicago Fire.

STLFC kept most of their core line up from 2015 in the midfield and at forward. In the midfield, STLFC brought back most of their squad including Parker Maher, Charles Renken, Jacob Bushue, and Kentaro Takada. STLFC will be without the services of Bryan Gaul who had 4 goals and 4 assists in the USL in 2015; who left to play at Bahlinger SC in Germany. However, as discussed earlier, Chad Bond will be a major addition as he had 1 goal and 8 assists with Tulsa. As for the forwards, the leading goal scores from last season return for the 2016 season. Mike Ambersley, Jeremie Lynch, and Jamiel Hardware all combined for 12 USL goals, return. STLFC also signed 24 year old, El Salvador national, Irvin Herrera who had a goal in the CONCACAF Champions League at his former club, Santa Tecla.

STLFC will be a team that will compete for a playoff spot in the west. STLFC was fourth in the league in attendance, which will make for tough road matches. STLFC had very little turnover in their field positions and only seemed to add quality to their lineup. The “Louligans” are very active on social media and will no doubt let our fans know about it, if STLFC rattles off some wins on our team. I fully expect their legion of fans to follow STLFC here to Tulsa. STLFC, welcome to the west!

RGVFC: The Boys at the Border

The Rio Grande Valley FC Toros are preparing to make their 2016 season debut in the USL. Rio Grande Valley were awarded a USL franchise and announced their affiliation with the Houston Dynamo last March. GM Bert Garcia and company have been hard at work putting the finishing touches on the operations of this brand new team. I had a chance to catch up with Garcia to talk about what we can expect from the newcomer’s unique affiliation with the Houston Dynamos, as well as a get a preview of their players.

Due to a network of ownership agreements, when the Roughnecks battle the Toros this season, they will effectively be playing the “Houston Dynamo 2”. This type of arrangement is new to the MLS and USL, as the responsibility of running a USL team is shared over two ownership groups. “We were the first to do something like this in the NBA and NBA D-League with the [Rio Grande Valley] Vipers and the [Houston] Rockets,” said Garcia. “This isn’t something that’s foreign to us. It’s something we wanted to introduce and are happy that the Houston Dynamo agreed to it and I believe we’ll see more of [these types of agreements] happen at the MLS-level.”

How exactly is this different from the other MLS affiliations in the league? While Houston Dynamo handles fielding a team and will manage all aspects of personnel of the Toros, Rio Grande Valley will manage the day-to-day operations, including their new 9,700 capacity, soccer-specific stadium in Edinburg, Texas. This arrangement is very much like a baseball farm team affiliation. Like, for example, the Tulsa Drillers.

I asked Garcia about RGVFC’s squad for 2016. Garcia explained that they’re bringing in a lot of talent from the Dynamo’s system. “We have a lot of young guys. We have quite a few guys from the Dynamo Academy. I think Charly Flores and Christian Lucatero have a future. Flores played with the U-20 team for the USA and Lucatero is one of the bright stars with the Houston Dynamo Academy. One of the recent guys we signed, [defender] Kai Greene; I would put my money on him against anyone in a race. He’s got that kind of speed. That’s just me talking as a fan.”

Asked if he is expecting a learning curve with fielding a young team, Garcia said they are, “but I’m not sure if you’ll get a better coach to do that. [Wilmer Cabrera] coached the United States Under-17 squad for two World Cups. We have a guy who can teach [younger players]. Our organization has always been a ‘no excuses’ organization. We’ll make the most of it and we’ll have a lot of energy, because we’re so young.” The youth factor could also prove helpful to RGVFC when visiting teams travel to south Texas during the summer months; a time when temperatures are routinely in the 90-100 degree range (before considering the humidity).

Rio Grande Valley FC signed a few USL veterans to the squad, as well. Devin Perales (former goalkeeper for the Austin Aztex) and George Malki (former Arizona United midfielder) will look to bring their USL experience to this young squad. Perales started in 15 matches as keeper for the Aztex and had 5 shutouts during the 2015 season, one of those occurring in Tulsa. Malki had 11 starts and 24 appearances for Arizona United last season, including one goal. Additionally, RGVFC also brought in former Philadelphia Union striker, Dzenan Catic, who had stints in the USL in the 2015 season with the Harrisburg City Islanders.

The most obvious rival for Rio Grande Valley is San Antonio (only a 3.5 hour car ride from Edinburg), but they will look to build off an existing rivalry between Rio Grande Valley and Tulsa. The Tulsa 66ers (before moving to Oklahoma City) battled it out with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA D-League. The two teams met in the NBA D-League finals in 2010 (Rio Grande winning) and met again in the semifinals of the playoffs in 2013 (Rio Grande Valley winning again). This rivalry will look to carry over from the court to the pitch as the two teams will play each 3 times during the regular season.

Rio Grande Valley FC will be a nice addition to the current USL mix in the western conference. I expect a few more signings in the coming days, as the Houston Dynamo determine which players are going to RGVFC. The Toros will look to use their brand new stadium and supporters group, The Stampede, to make the trip to south Texas for opposing teams an intimidating one! If this team can string along some good results early in the season, they will certainly be in the mix for the wide-open Western Conference playoffs. The Tulsa Roughnecks will welcome the Toros to ONEOK Field this Saturday at 7:00 PM. Hopefully, the result will be in the Roughnecks favor!

Swope Park Rangers: Rivals to the North

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

The United Soccer League is in the middle of a growth spurt, as evidenced by the addition of new teams for the 2016 season. The Tulsa Roughnecks FC excitedly welcome in a new regional rival- the Swope Park Rangers (owned by Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer).  Tulsa fans will soon be well acquainted with the newcomers from the north, as the Rangers and Roughnecks will battle at least 4 times in the 2016 season. This is exciting for Tulsa area Roustabout and Cauldron fans, who will now be able to watch the Roughnecks battle with the Swope Park Rangers, as well as attend a Sporting KC match in the same weekend (only a four-hour car ride from Green Country!).

I recently talked with the General Manager of the Swope Park Rangers, Kurt Austin, about all the goings-on at this new club.  Austin has been with Sporting KC’s front office for six years and has had experience handling Sporting’s USL affiliations with both Orlando City and Oklahoma City Energy in the past.  We talked about the new squad (which includes a familiar face from the 2015 Roughnecks team) and expectations for the Rangers in their first year with the USL. Of the announced roster, Tulsans will be most familiar with players such as Christian Duke and Jacob VanCompernolle who both played for Oklahoma City last season, as well as Kris Tyrpak who played for the Austin Aztex in USL last season and most recently for San Antonio in their final NASL season.

On the offensive end, Austin says they’re glad to have Christian Duke back in Kansas City. “He is a product of the Kansas City Academy, born and raised here. He was with Sporting KC and went on loan to the USL to get his first professional experience. Nothing official, but I expect [he] will be wearing the captain’s armband for this season.”

Former Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak is also someone Roughneck fans will need to keep an eye on. “Kris Tyrpak is a guy that’s had a lot of success wherever he’s been,” said Austin. “He started out in the MLS at Chivas USA, before they folded.  He went back to his native Texas in Austin where he scored a lot of good quality goals. We’ve already seen that quality show itself early on in preseason.  He’ll be someone who can carve up a defense, especially paired with Dane Kelly.  We were excited to get him [Kelly], due to his success in the USL [formerly of the Charleston Battery] and he has a high ceiling.  He’ll be able to come in day one and help make our team successful.”

On the defensive side, Austin said their squad is coming together. Jacob [VanCompernolle] will be pushing for starting spot on the back line.  “We have a lot of depth there and had some players step up in the preseason, giving us a lot of competition, which is what you want to see.  If you talk to Coach Marc Dos Santos, that’s exactly what he’s looking for- to see guys pushing each other every day, making Marc’s job tougher to put a line-up sheet together.”  Austin added that two other players that saw a lot of preseason action were goalkeeper Jonathan Kempin and Colombian-international midfielder, Jimmy Medranda. Medranda even saw minutes with Sporting in their first MLS matches.

How is former Roughneck Zac Lubin transitioning to the Swope Park Rangers?  Austin had this to say, “Two things about Zac; on the field he’s been a fantastic addition for us, he has played a lot for us in the preseason and made the most of his opportunities. Secondly, he’s been a great guy in the locker room. He’s had a lot of professional experience and, even though he’s still young at 26, he’s our oldest guy on the team. He’s great at showing the younger players the ropes of playing in the USL and setting the tone in the locker room. He’ll definitely push Kempin for that starting role.”

As an expansion club owned by an MLS club, SPR were always going to a have a strong lean towards development, but Austin said he strives to balance player development with maintaining a competitive team in the USL.  “I believe the two go hand-in-hand.  It’s absolutely about bringing in players who we feel could play for Sporting Kansas City. We look at the age of the players and view their ceiling, from a talent and ability perspective. In order for them to be successful, it comes down to performance. We also approached this from a fan-perspective. We want these guys (who are used to playing in front of their friends and family) to get that experience of playing in front of thousands of fans.  We want to set the bar high and treat this to the utmost professional level we can.”

Austin said he’s excited about playing in the USL.  “Personally, it’s exciting to me.  It’s a league that continues to grow and we’re excited to be part of it.  You don’t have to look far to find some really good rosters. Even the expansion teams, like San Antonio, are bringing in a lot of guys with MLS experience.  The talent of soccer in America is growing and the USL is a great showcase for that.”

Geographically, the USL also has advantages. “If I have to pick one thing I’m most excited about in our inaugural season, it’s that Swope Park Rangers will have several teams (Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Saint Louis) that are all in a reasonable driving distance. To watch those rivalries grow will be the best part of this year. In fact, most rivalry matches are played on Saturdays to accommodate traveling fans in these regional match-ups.”  Austin expressed his excitement for supporters of all teams to come and enjoy the matches at Swope Park, as well as helping their own supporter group “The Zoo” take shape.  This comes as a stark contrast to the lack of regional rivalries for Sporting Kansas City. The nearest opponent to Sporting Park is 8 hours away in Chicago or Dallas.

So far, Swope has had success in the off season, notching a 3-1 win versus Colorado Rapids and a 2-2 draw against Columbus Crew in the Desert Diamond Cup, held in the preseason. The Rangers have a bevy of USL-experienced talent, coupled with the technical staff of a successful MLS franchise.  If Swope Park gets an organically grown supporter culture, than I have no doubt they will join the budding rivalry with Saint Louis, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City.  Swope Park appears to be a team that will compete with Tulsa for one of the eight playoff positions in the western conference.

 

 

“Saint” Brady Ballew Ready for Sophomore Season

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

Fans can rejoice because midfielder Brady Ballew re-signed with the Tulsa Roughnecks FC over the winter. Brady (or St. Brady as the Roustabouts affectionately refer to the midfielder) will look to follow up on a season where he scored 6 goals (including the inaugural goal for the franchise) and 4 assists. Brady was also a finalist for the USL Rookie of the Year award and started in 20 matches for the ‘Necks. I had a chance to reflect with the 23 year old Seattle-native on his success from last season and find out what he’s been up to since we last watched him net a goal during the last match of the season.

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During the off-season, Ballew had the opportunity for some travel. “Me, Chad [Bond], ‘Dav’ [Iarfhlaith Davoren] and [Cristian] Mata all went to Thailand and we were there for about two and a half weeks, just playing and doing some touring. [From there I] went to England to visit my girlfriend and got a chance to train with Cambridge United.” Cambridge has several players on loan from the EPL and play in the fourth division of English soccer.

“I STARTED DOING YOGA…”

Brady says he relished his time training with Cambridge, and that he learned a lot about how to be a professional and how hard he would need to work every single day. “They really know how to flip the switch, when it comes to practicing, and I want to bring that to our team.”

What has Brady been working on in the off-season? “I’ve been focusing on shooting across my body, being able to open up my hips before I finish. It makes the goalkeeper think a split-second before I shoot. In order to get more flexibility, I started doing yoga. It really helped my flexibility and body control. I’m also always working on my speed and quickness as well.”

ON 2015: “THE ODDS WERE STACKED AGAINST ME…”

At the beginning of 2015, Brady started at left back as a defender. “[I’d] never played left back before and here I was, coming from college to the professional game, playing a new position in a new league where I had to rely on my off-foot.” Brady is right footed and many left backs prefer using the left foot. “The odds were really stacked against me. Looking back, it was the best thing for me, getting thrown in [at the beginning of the season]. After a while, I was benched because I wasn’t doing very well. David and I had a conversation.” Coach David Irving knew Brady wasn’t a true left back, but encouraged Brady and reassured him that he would have a chance playing his familiar position on the wing.

After getting his visa, Iarfhlaith Davoren then came on board at the left back position, which allowed Brady to move up to the right wing. “We, as a team, started to gel and I got my confidence back… It was a bit of a rocky start, but at the same time, I’m grateful for getting those starts early in the season and getting that first goal of the season.” Brady also expressed his gratitude for all of support and encouragement he received from the Roustabouts.

“WE HAVE A VERY TIGHT LOCKER ROOM”

Brady said he first felt like last year’s squad really became a “team” during the away trip to Seattle. “They were top of the table and we were in a bit of a hole, and it felt like it was now or never to make a big push. We put up 5 goals on them and most were great team-goals. We started believing in each other and the locker room; we had camaraderie in the locker room and we were all buzzing after that match! We all went out that night and bonded even more. We have a very tight locker room.”

“I WANT TO BE THE MOST FIT GUY ON THE FIELD”

Brady talked about his goals and expectations are for 2016. “Making the playoffs is the obvious goal. Anything can happen once you’re there. Would I like to say, ‘I want to double my assists and goals’? Sure, but it’s hard to set expectations, just because there are so many aspects you have to control on the midfield. My goals are more fitness-based- I want to be the most fit guy on the field. If I’m the most fit person on the field, I can contribute the most on the field. I can get back on defense, move up on an attack, and I can help on anything. I’ve also learned a lot from the older guys on the team, they are very helpful!”

Brady talked about the fans and, specifically, about the Roustabouts. “You guys are insane! We are so lucky to have you all as fans. We could not have dreamed up the fan participation that we had in our first season. Every practice we talk about you guys and our goal celebrations with you.”

Off the pitch, Brady also shows his creativity with music. His Soundcloud account updates with new jams semi-regularly, begging the question, when will we get a concert here in Tulsa?

Long live St. Brady!

Coach Irving Reflects on his First Season in Tulsa

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

David IrvingThe Tulsa Roughnecks finished in seventh place in the Western Conference in 2015, just one place outside the playoffs for Coach David Irving’s first season in Tulsa. I caught up with Coach Irving to get his take on the 2015 season and to find out what the Roughnecks have in store for the 2016 season.

“We were a young team and really young at the back, so I expected some challenges there,” said Coach Irving, looking back on what he knew about his team coming into last season. “We know the team that makes the least mistakes, typically wins; unfortunately we had some mistakes early on.”

“We Got Off to a Late Start Last Year…”

Roughnecks only netted one goal in the first 3 matches versus OKC Energy, St. Louis FC, and Austin Aztex. In the fourth match, the flood gates opened in a 4-3 win over the undefeated Seattle Sounders II. After the initial four game home stand (with a 1-2-1 record), the Roughnecks went from April 16th to May 29th without playing a single home match.

“We got off to a late start last year for the first four home games. We didn’t do so well, and the next 8 of 9 games were away. It was tough but we got better each game we played and that continued through the season.” The Roughneck’s record for the 8 of 9 away games was 3-4-2, which included victories at playoff qualifiers Seattle Sounders II (Tulsa swept the season series) and Orange County Blues FC.

After the stretch of away matches, the Roughnecks were back at ONEOK Field, but went on to lose their next two matches against Sacramento Republic FC and L.A. Galaxy II; both playoff qualifiers. However, during this time, Coach could sense the momentum changing and the hard work began to pay off.

Forward Cristian Mata joined the team, along with Midfielder Henri Manhebo (both have inked deals in the off season to return to Tulsa in 2016). Over the next 10 matches, the Roughneck’s tallied up a 6-1-3 record, which included victories over playoff qualifiers Orange County Blues (Tulsa swept the season series) and Colorado Springs Switchbacks (both at home and away, sweeping the season series). The Roughnecks netted a whopping 26 goals during this stretch!

“[It] was a combination of a lot of things; Cristian and Henri came in and we started to find the right combination of players. Cristian put in 6 goals and Brady started playing well and the game opened up. That’s football; you win as a team, you lose as a team.” The season ended with the Roughnecks going 1-1-2, but getting a key victory over arch-rivals the Oklahoma City Energy to finish the season.

“Our Fans at Home Were Unbelievable”

“We dropped points mid-season, which unfortunately kept us out of the playoffs. All-in-all, I was happy with our first season and all the players did a heck of a job.” Irving also commented on the support of the Roustabouts and other Tulsa fans. “Our fans at home were unbelievable! One of the highlights of the year was when we played the second game in Oklahoma City. We saw our fans marching in with all the flags–that was a moment for me and the team. We appreciated all the efforts of our fans and the supporters.”

In the off-season, Coach Irving spent time scouting in England and Ireland, as well as attending a combine in Atlanta. The pre-season begins on Monday, February 22nd with the first day of practice for the Roughnecks. On February 26th, the team will leave to participate in 10 days of training in Florida. Irving, “Last year we had two weeks here [in Tulsa] and couldn’t do much due to the snow. It was tough to practice and we had to cancel a friendly with Oklahoma City University. [This year] we’re going down to Ft. Lauderdale for 5 days and then Jacksonville for 5 days.” Irving mentioned that the weather may have contributed to the slow start in 2015. The challenge of putting together a new team with limited practices increases the difficulty level, substantially. Going down to Florida, with accommodating weather, and playing in a few friendlies should help remedy that problem this season.

Expectations for 2016?  “We expect to have a stronger roster, a good locker room, and a great group of guys. The league is getting stronger and so are the players. We need to get off to a better start than last season. It’s hard to play catch-up, especially in this league, with the travel. We are looking to build on that foundation and to score more points this year. We are a lot further along now than we were last year.”

The Roughnecks begin regular season play on Saturday, March 26th at ONEOK Field against Rio Grande Valley FC. Tickets are now on sale here.

Cristian Mata’s Road to the Roughnecks

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

Cristian Mata grew up playing the game he loves in his hometown of Tulsa. Mata, a 2012 graduate of Tulsa’s Union High School, amassed 70 goals and earned Oklahoma’s Gatorade Player of the Year award his senior year of high school. His jaw-dropping stats and goal-scoring ability were noticed by several colleges. Despite  that attention, Mata decided to stay close to home and play at the University of Tulsa. Mata continued adding goals in the college ranks. He started 19 of 20 games as a freshman and would go on to record a team-high 14 goals. He followed it up with a sophomore season at TU where he started another 19 matches, racking up 10 more goals.

Regrettably, the University of Tulsa’s academic standards began taking a toll on the striker. “Things didn’t go right for me. Unfortunately, I had a bad time with my grades,” said Mata. He would leave the Hurricanes after his sophomore season in 2014.

After leaving the University of Tulsa, Mata attended a try out for the Seattle Sounders MLS club. “It’s a try out they have every year and I was selected to that [Seattle’s Academy Team]. I gave that a shot, as well, and nothing really happened.”

At my age, I knew I could still play

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2014, during what would have been Mata’s junior year of college, the Tulsa Roughnecks FC were a team in name only. They were still months away from signing their first player. Hopes of playing professionally seemed to be dwindling for Mata. He stated, “I wasn’t playing for a while and had to help out with money. I got a job and I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do (long term). At my age, I knew I could still play.” Mata’s luck would soon change, once the Roughnecks started playing soccer.

“I got an opportunity from a former coach.” Mata recalled. “He knew I was a good talent and that if I got back out there, I could maybe help the team. Luckily, he talked Coach [Irving] into giving me a chance. I was able to work for about two weeks with the team and everything went right from there.”

Mata was signed on June 25, 2015, to join the Roughnecks during the mid-season. He didn’t wait long to make a splash in the league! That same night, Mata would make his debut as a second half substitute versus Sacramento Republic. Down 2-0, Mata weaved his way past two defenders and netted a right-footed shot in the 71st minute. “It was a great moment for me! I was just hoping to get out there and get into my rhythm. Luckily, I got a goal. Unfortunately, it was a bad result [Sacramento went on to win], but getting out there and getting a goal was a good experience.”

There’s no other place that I’d rather be

Mata would go on to become an integral part of Tulsa’s offense. He started in 13 of 15 matches, scoring 6 goals for the season (including 2 in a match versus Real Salt Lake on August 13th in Tulsa). It brought him a sense of pride to do so in front of his family and friends (the 9-1-8 boys, as he calls them). Mata summarized by saying, “I moved here when I was 9 and saw the day-to-day life here in Tulsa. There’s no other place that I’d rather be.”

Cristian Mata re-signed with the Roughnecks for 2016. This season, he hopes to get Tulsa to the playoffs and to score 10-plus goals the year. Mata could be headed for a banner-year, so it looks like the Roustabouts will have a lot to celebrate. We’ll get the smoke bombs ready!

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Crocketteers Optimistic about Move to USL

Off Pitch is the occasional blog from Roustabouts member Roger Graham. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99

Last week, the USL awarded its 31st franchise to San Antonio, with the announcement that Spurs Sports & Entertainment will own and operate the club that will begin play in 2016. Late last year, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County purchased Toyota Field, where the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions formerly played, in November of 2015. The Spurs Sports and Entertainment Group (the ownership group of NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and now, San Antonio’s USL’s team) entered into a lease with the City and County. This will move San Antonio’s only professional soccer team from the NASL, the second division of US Soccer’s pyramid, to the USL, currently in the third division. The San Antonio Scorpions will no longer play soccer in the Alamo City. This news has not only made headlines in the United States soccer rounds, but undoubtedly has made a huge impact inside the supporter circles in San Antonio. What does this change mean for Roughneck fans? It means we’ll have a new team in the region, a new supporter group to drink a pint with while exchanging bragging rights, and maybe even a road trip or two to the River Walk!

Crocketteers-Shield

The Crocketteers (@crocketteers on Twitter), established in 2009, are the main supporter group for all things soccer in San Antonio, including coaching and financial support of three local, inner-city youth teams. The Crocketteers, who were the stalwarts for the Scorpions and boast a membership of 1,500 plus, will also follow suit for the new USL team. President of the Crocketteers, James Hope, is not only excited about the change over to the USL, but the ownership as well.

“People are excited about the change in ownership. When you get an organization like the Spurs Sports & Entertainment and they are interested in what you love, which is soccer; we’re excited about that! We see a great organization that has had success as a smaller market in San Antonio in the NBA. The President and Vice President are big soccer fans and they are excited about bringing a team to San Antonio, with the ability and possibility of moving up to the highest level. This excited all of us! We want to be able to play at the highest level in San Antonio. We think the Spurs Sports & Entertainment has the wherewithal to do it.”

I asked if there would be some confusion to fans about dropping to the third-tier (USL) in lieu of having a second-tier team. Hope said, “I think for a lot of people, there were concerns about what the divisions mean. We’re certain that there’s not much difference between Division 2 and Division 3. This last year in the US Open Cup, the USL went 7-0 versus the NASL teams. Next year, the USL has applied for Division 2 status and has a good chance at getting it.”

WE’RE CERTAIN THERE’S NOT MUCH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIVISION 2 AND DIVISION 3

Beyond division status, Hope was open about his views of the NASL in general. “Personally, I have some serious concerns about the NASL and what they’re doing, in terms of salary cap. There are owners out there spending a lot of money on mediocrity. They just don’t get it. I’m concerned about a league like the NASL being around for 10 years. That’s the thing with the [MLS-USL] affiliations between the clubs. You can get 4-5 players from the main club and that could save you a lot of money on player fees.” Besides MLS affiliations in many markets, by playing in the USL, their team would also be able to play many more regional teams.

Speaking of teams in the region, one of the exciting aspects of being a Roughnecks fan in Tulsa is that our nearest rival is only a mere 90 minute drive away. Previously, the nearest opponent for the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions was in Atlanta, Georgia, a staggering 14.5 hours away by car and a 1000 mile journey. The change to the USL means Rio Grande Valley is 4-5 hours away. “That’ll be our first real rivalry and then Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Next year, we’ll have Austin, which is only 70 miles from San Antonio. We’re just excited that we’re going to be able to physically travel to an away match!” said Hope. “Atlanta, being 17 hours away, you don’t get a lot of people that want to make that trip, and rightfully so.” Hope said that he has talked with Oklahoma City’s supporters, the Grid, and would like to get Tulsa and Rio Grande supporters on board to host a cup or trophy between the four Oklahoma and Texas teams. Stay tuned!

I also asked that if San Antonio ended up playing in the USL for multiple years (instead of being converted to MLS), would fans continue supporting the USL? Hope thinks some will and some won’t. “I think people will, but there are a lot of people who say ‘call me when the MLS comes’. There are people who show up to the bars to the EPL matches every week that won’t come out to a Scorpions match. ‘I’d rather watch it on TV,’ they say. I understand that, we want to work as hard as we can to get to the highest level. We know there are baby steps that have to be done. The USL is a very strong league with very strong players and a business model that I really like. I think a lot of people will see that.”

THE USL IS A VERY STRONG LEAGUE WITH VERY STRONG PLAYERS

Hope is also interested in actually hosting opponents and supporter groups in San Antonio. He stated, “If you come to Toyota [Field], we want to give you a hard time, but we want you to drink with us before the game and after the game. In the stands for 90 minutes we’re going to go at each other, but it’s all in fun! We’re not here to steal your flags or take your scarves.” Hope also offered to help any supporters group or fans willing to make the trip to San Antonio. “You guys are more than welcome to our tailgates. If you need to find somewhere to spend the night, we’ll help you take care of that. We want you all to have a good time here!”

James Hope can be reached at james.hope@crocketteers.com

Roughnecks Welcome Familiar Faces for 2016

This week on the blog, Roustabouts member Roger Graham shares his thoughts on the recent signings announced by Tulsa Roughnecks FC. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99.

While most of us are busy with the holiday hoopla of eating too much and awkwardly drinking with our “politically incorrect” family members, the Tulsa Roughnecks FC has been working deals to bring back core members of the inaugural 2015 team. The winter transfer window began Dec. 1 and allows USL teams to announce signings for next season, which starts in March. Head coach David Irving, now with a year in Green Country under his belt, is looking to mix the 2016 roster with recognized names from last season’s team and some new signees. Coach Irving and his staff have so far announced the signings of five returners and a footballer new to T-Town.

Midfielder Brady Ballew, the first signing for 2016’s squad, was honored four times in 2015 on USL’s Team of the Week and was a finalist for USL’s Rookie of the Year award. Ballew accumulated six goals (four assists), three of which were against the OKC Energy FC and one of which was the go-ahead and eventual game-winner against Arizona United SC in Tulsa on Aug. 2. The 23-year-old winger has a good mix of skill and quickness and is always looking to get behind the defenders to create chances on the right side of the 4-4-2. The contract with Ballew is a multi-year deal (exact details not released).

The Roughnecks also locked up another solid midfielder for the 2016 season in Henri Manhebo. Manhebo, from the Ivory Coast, was signed last summer and appeared in only 11 matches (he started the last 10 in 2015). Manhebo was a crucial piece of the puzzle, as the Roughnecks strung along nice results at the end of 2015. He also scored the opening goal in the 5-1 blowout of the Real Monarchs SLC on Aug. 13 in Tulsa. Known for his pace, versatility and pesky defending, Manhebo will be in the holding midfielder role in 2016.

Sammy Ochoa, former Seattle Sounders FC 2 and Estudiantes Tecos forward, will return to Tulsa in 2016. Ochoa amassed a team-leading nine goals (three assists) during the 2015 campaign. Most of the goals came later in the season, as his first goal came in the 86th minute of the 11th game of the year versus Sounders 2. Ochoa established himself as a solid choice up top for the playoff push at the end of the 2015 season. The right-footed striker has noted physicality and efficiency, netting 59.1 percent of his shots on goal and going 3-3 on penalty kicks in 2015. Being the savvy veteran, he draws contact and fouls around the box, setting up scoring opportunities from free kicks (and even a penalty in Austin on June 21). Ochoa’s contract is for two years.

The Roughnecks also locked up two mainstays from 2015’s season on the back line: centre-back Ryan Price and left-back Iarfhlaith “Irish Lad” Davoren. Price and Davoren were part of a defense that had five shutouts and 10 matches where the team only gave up one goal. Price, 23 years old, played the most minutes of any player on the Roughnecks squad, appearing in 27 matches in 2015. He will be counted on to hold the back line and clear any wayward chances from the opposing team’s offense. Davoren, the former Sligo Rover, is known for his aggressive, hard-nosed style of play (he was the only player on the team to earn a red card). He netted one goal (two assists), as he was signed after the season began.

Tulsa’s only new signing for 2016 so far is Pakistani international Kaleemullah Khan (known as Kaleemullah). Kaleemullah, 23 years old, has played an extensive role for the Pakistani national team, putting away four goals. The very popular forward (with more than 65,000 “likes” on his Facebook page) began his stint in the United States with Sacramento Republic FC in 2015. He made seven appearances (and one start) in the USL during the 2015 season. Kaleemullah has a great deal of skill, proven by a YouTube video that shows the Pakistani in a one-on-one situation with a defender; he is in a dead sprint, stops on a dime, and rips a shot into the net while the hapless goalkeeper falls down and the defender runs past. Should make for an exciting addition to the Roughnecks in 2016!

Key departures
Both Gibson Bardsley and Julian Portugal left during the 2015 season. Bardsley signed with Pembroke Athleta in Malta during the summer. He had four goals in 17 appearances, while Portugal had eight appearances as a defender for the Roughnecks.

Two other Roughnecks were signed to domestic leagues for the 2016 season. Midfielder Steven Miller signed on with NASL’s Carolina RailHawks after going on loan following Tulsa’s 2015 season. Miller made 28 appearances for the Roughnecks and tacked on three goals (including a game winner in Austin on May 24) and two assists. Goalkeeper Zac Lubin, who started in the net for the first 15 games of 2015 for Tulsa, signed on with USL newcomer Swope Park Rangers. There’s no need to fret, however, we’ll see more of Lubin, as the Rangers are in the same division as the Roughnecks.

U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round Draw Possibilities

This week on the blog, Tulsa Roustabouts member Roger Graham shares his thoughts on the upcoming pairings for the fourth round of the 2015 US Open Cup. Follow Roger on Twitter at @rogman99.

The Fourth Round brings a lot of excitement as the lower division teams pair up with the U.S.-based MLS teams. It’s a David vs Goliath March Madness type match-up, except Goliath may have to travel to a cubbyhole PDL pitch with rabid supporters, in lieu of a sterile, natural-site location! This also gives a chance for divisions such as the USL and NASL a litmus test to compare themselves to the highest level of teams in the U.S.

How draws for the Fourth Round work? According to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Page, the Fourth Round draw is determined by the following:

Participants: Winners from 15 Third Round games are joined by 17 MLS clubs.
Description: After each Third Round matchup has been determined, 15 of 17 MLS teams will be paired geographically to a specific Third Round matchup and be scheduled to play these winners, while two MLS teams will face each other to complete the bracket.

In addition to geographically-paired match-ups, the MLS teams with affiliates (or II teams) will not be competing against each other. This means, no Portland vs. Timbers II, or Sporting KC vs. OKC Energy as an example. The selection committee seems to favor putting teams close (geographically) together to make as many teams travel as little as possible, but leaving a few teams to make long distance travel. I used this same philosophy for my determination of possible match-ups. I have also made caveats as we do not know the second round winners (matches on Wednesday, May 20th) at the time of this article and the Committee will have that information at the time of the draw (which is on Thursday, May 21st). This is my best guess, based on my research, and I will make comments on “other possibilities” on each potential match up.

UPDATE: The rules state that teams with a shared-ownership affiliation would not be paired together (ex, Seattle Sounders / Sounders II). The rule does not mention averting regular affiliation parent club match ups (ex. Sporting Kansas City and Oklahoma City). I’ve modified my original post to allow those possible Fourth Round draws.

Something else that makes this difficult to nail down, is the fact that there is a large population of lower-league teams in the Southeast part of the US, and only one MLS team in that part of the country (Orlando City). This will create uncertainty as the Committee may make teams for the west coast play teams in the region, which would create a domino effect as teams get shifted around. It only makes sense, to me that the east coast teams will pick up the slack and travel inside their own time zone. If a couple of upsets happen in the Second round, this could set off a chain of events where west coast (or Midwest) teams would travel east.

Now that I’m finished with all that, let’s get this (theoretical) draw started!

I’ll start off with my more confident picks and work my way down.

1) Houston vs. Laredo / Austin or San Antonio winner
All three teams are geographically close to Houston. I suspected the Committee will keep all these teams in south Texas. FC Dallas could come into play, but I have them locked-up on another potential match-up. A nice weekday road trip is doable for Austin or San Antonio (right at 3 hours on the road) supporters.

2) NYCFC vs. NYRB II / New Jersey Express or NY Cosmos
New York Derby for days! A potential matchup between NYCFC and the Cosmos (not if RBNY 2 and the Express have anything to say about it) would create a buzz around the Boroughs! If RBNY II gets bounced in the Second Round, then maybe the parent club (RBNY) comes into play in a coin-flip situation.

3) Colorado Rapids vs. Harpos / Colorado Springs Switchback or Real Monarchs / Long Island Rough Riders
There will be a Colorado representative at the time of the Fourth Round draw, so I feel the Rapids (and Pablo’s beautiful mustache) will be waiting on the winner of this group. If Long Island pulls the upset over the Monarchs, than maybe an east coast team (New England or RBNY) could be an option, but the Committee seems to keep the groups and match-ups in the original region (see Seacoast / Tulsa / Midland / OKC).

4) Sporting Kansas City vs. Minnesota or Des Moines / St. Louis FC
St. Louis makes Chicago a viable option in this match up (if victorious over the Menace). Historically, SKC is the team awaiting the winner of the Des Moines / Minnesota group winner, and is a repeat of last year’s USOC match with Minnesota locking horns with Sporting in 2014. If the St. Looligans have their day(s) in the sun, this could set up a nice I-70 Derby!

5) FC Dallas vs. Seacoast United Phantoms / Tulsa Roughnecks or Oklahoma City Energy / Midland/Odessa Sockers
The Texoma region with either Oklahoma and/or Texas representation at the time of the Third Round draw would pull FC Dallas into this group. A road weary Seacoast and/or Midland/Odessa could throw a wrench into a possible Red River show-down (maybe a Friday Night Lights Derby?).

6) LA Galaxy vs. Chula Vista FC / Arizona United or Sacramento / Sonoma Sol winner
The other Golden State(ish) match-up group involves Los Dos, which, since there’s no longer Chivas USA (RIP), LA Galaxy will fit nicely into this group. San Jose played Sacramento in 2014’s USOC, so history favors San Jose, but Arizona and Chula Vista will bring LA Galaxy to this group. I would expect a coin flip between San Jose and Los Angeles. If Los Dos loses in the Second Round, see San Jose waiting for the winner of this group.

7) Philadelphia Union vs. Tampa Bay or West Virginia / Pittsburgh Riverhounds winner
There are several viable options for this group as there are several MLS teams in this region (sorry Tampa, you’re stuck playing north). I could see DC United, Columbus, and RBNY fitting nicely here too. I settled on Philly as DCU have a more favorable regional match-up and possible Pennsylvania representation in the Fourth Round draw.

8) Orlando City vs. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers or Charleston Battery / Miami United
There are three NASL Florida teams (and supporters) who would LOVE to play the Kaka-led Citizens in the Fourth Round. I went with this group for Orlando since there will be Florida representation at the time of the draw and this, geographically, looks right. I feel the Committee will keep the south Florida teams in Florida for the Fourth Round. Honestly, there’s not a “better option” here (unless a coin flip determines which NASL Florida team will see Orlando in Round 3). If that’s the case, the whole east coast could be thrown into a random-generator whirlwind of “this makes no sense, where’s my beer?!” match-ups.

9) New England Revolution vs. Binghamton Thunder / Rochester Rhinos or Harrisburg / Reading United winner
This is another group, which could pull one of several MLS sides. I originally went with RBNY here, until a reread of the affiliate match-up rules. I changed my answer to the Revolution since it’s a regional opponent and omitting New England from this match-up would put them on a longer road trip.

10) Real Salt Lake vs. Orange County Blues / PSA Elite or Ventura County or LA Galaxy II
Until LAFC decides to show up, Real Salt Lake can punch their ticket to play in the SoCal group. If Los Dos should happen to drop one against VC, than the parent club could be called into action.

11) Chicago vs. Indy Eleven or Louisville City / Lansing United
I could see Columbus in this region too. I went with Chicago because there’s nothing else near-by, not already accounted (unless they get shipped to the Cascadia region or to the Southeast) for the Fire. Last year, Columbus was involved in this region, but so were the Dayton Dutch Lions. We don’t have an Ohio representative prior to the Fourth Round and Indy is only a 4 hour drive from Chicago. I’ll give a weighted-coin flip to Chicago in this group.

12) San Jose vs. Timbers II / Michigan Buck or Sounders II / Kitsap Pumas
Due to the II-representation, San Jose makes the most sense. An upset-minded Kitsap or Bucks could draw in the parent club in this region. This is where I’ll be interested to see how the Committee handles pairing the parent club, if the affiliated club loses in a geographically-convenient region. Otherwise, there are not a lot of places for Seattle and Portland originals to go.

13) DC United vs. Jacksonville Armada or Richmond Kickers / Virginia Beach
DC united seems to be a shoe in for this group. United is familiar with Kickers (also an affiliate) as they have had to match skills in past Open Cups. Even if Virginia Beach pulls the upset, I still see DCU awaiting the group winner.

14) Columbus Crew vs. Atlanta or Chattanooga / Wilmington Hammerheads winner
If Chatty pulls off the upset (again), I would feel better about this pick. Atlanta will be a great addition to the MLS as they will bring the Southeast an MLS opponent in the area. Atlanta and Chatty are both non-coastal teams, which makes me think Columbus would be the team in this group.

15) RBNY vs. Carolina Railhawks or Upward Star / Charlotte Independence
Last season, Chivas USA was awaiting the winner of this regional group. I don’t think that’s happening this year, so I’m going with the only eastern conference team without a group. Carolina made a nice run last year, can it be repeated? There could be an outside shot of a Cascadia team showing up, but I’ll have that covered next!

16) Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers
Unless an upset in the Cascadia region group should happen, I think the Committee would love to see this match-up in the Fourth Round (I know I would!). Due to the lack of northwest teams and the over-representation of southeast teams, this makes sense.

Let’s see how right (probably wrong) I’m going to be come early Thursday morning. Until then, I’d love to hear your comments or disagreements.