Tulsa Athletic & the Magic of the CupGo deep with the amateur Cinderellas from Oklahoma who rolled over their pro neighbors at the their spiritual homebase – and now face a huge Goliath on the road at MLS’ Sporting Kansas City
The pitch at Hicks Park isn’t perfect.
But on April 5th, 2023, as fans and friends rolled into the lot off South Mingo Road and squeaked open their lawn chairs, it became ground-zero of American soccer romance. As a soft Oklahoma sunset bathed the scene in somber golds, those folks all stood witness to the essence and promise of the Open Cup.
“Teams come here and kick at the dirt and you can tell they’re wondering, what’s up with this place?" said Aaron Ugbah, in his fifth year with Tulsa Athletic, the amateur club who’ve called Hicks Park home since 2016. “Yeah Hicks is rough, unique I’d call it. But the field is a rectangle and the ball is round, right?”
The ratio of grass to dirt at Hicks hovers somewhere between 75 to 25 depending on the time of year. But for an amateur club, who play in the National Premier Soccer League and rely on steady pitch-in from fans and community members to keep the lights on and the good times going, you’d expect some bumps.When Athletic lined up there earlier this month against crosstown professionals FC Tulsa, the dust whipped around the fading daylight in tiny whirlwinds.
Pride in Something Built
There’s a tangible swell of pride among the fans of Tulsa Athletic. The players too, like Ugbah, a forward who finds time to train around long days building the custom ladders used by airplane mechanics.
But there’s no one prouder of what the club’s become than Sonny Dalesandro. A former goalkeeper, who nipped around the edges of the pro game, he’s a well-known restaurateur and founder and owner of Tulsa Athletic.
“My dad grills the sausages on game day and my mom takes the tickets at the gate,” laughed the 45-year-old Dalesandro, who’ll talk at length about Hicks Park, home of the club he started with partner Dr. Tommy Kern in 2005 under the name Boston Avenue Athletic Club. “This is a community club – you come out on a Sunday, bring some beers, sit under a shade tree – and maybe help out where you can.”
Dalesandro out mowing the grass on the morning of a gameday, a cloud of dust kicked up around his noisy machine, has become part of the lore of the club. Before a recent game, he was out there helping spray weed-killer on the field before realizing he needed to be across town, at the restaurant he owns, Dalensandros, in an apron “on the line grilling swordfish.”
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Like any good restaurateur, there’s a generous dash of the hustler about Dalesandro. Sprinkled with a good helping of charm, though, you don’t mind being led on a merry dance by the man whose major concern is making a “blueprint for smaller clubs in smaller communities” and “being a club that helps grow the game.”
“You won’t see too many team owners out there on a Sunday morning cutting the grass on the field so it’s ready to go for game time,” said the soft-spoken Titus Grant, a talented Tulsa Athletic midfielder out of Seattle Pacific University who, in his third year at the club, works days as a substitute teacher at a school for adults with disabilities.
The Big Game – One Tulsa vs. Another
When FC Tulsa’s players, local pros in the USL Championship, arrived at Hicks Park for their Open Cup Second Rounder, it was just another game. But for Athletic’s players, it was something more. A do-over. They’d been beaten by that same team in the previous year’s Open Cup and admit to being, as Ugbah described it: “intimidated by the fireworks and a little star-struck” in the 2-1 loss.
Grant described this year’s game as “ a chance to show them what we’re about.”
And where they live too.
When the final whistle went on an historic 1-0 win for the amateurs, sending them into the Open Cup’s Third Round against MLS’ Sporting Kansas City, the smiles of the fans and players, family and friends and fellows in a cause, were the kind that never truly wash off.
Something will hang there, in the air over Hicks Park, forever.
It hasn’t been plain sailing for Tulsa Athletic from the start. What started as a Sunday League team to “play and go get some beers and hang out,” turned into a success. By accident. “We kept getting promoted,” Dalesandro laughed about the team’s early climb in the local men’s leagues. And, sniffing out an opportunity, he decided to roll with it.
He rented the former home of minor-league baseball team the Tulsa Drillers and somehow got 4000 people out to Athletic’s opening game in the NPSL in 2013.
There was a road to becoming a pro club and Dalesandro is nothing if not aware of the possibilities. After a big media push and launch, the team pulled thousands of fans per game in their first season under the name Tulsa Athletic. But it all turned to dust when FC Tulsa, the very team the Athletic boys beat in this year’s Open Cup, rolled into town and filled up the lanes with big investment and big plans.
Dalesandro was “blindsided” and it led to inevitable talk of “should we keep doing it?”
Maybe it was stubbornness or, as Dalesandro himself suspects, a benign kind of mid-life crisis. But he kept going even when, in 2016, USA BMX wanted to move to Tulsa. And more specifically, wanted the land Athletic's then home field sat on to build a headquarters and hall of fame.
“That was a normal time to stop,” he said. “But we just thought, Fu*#^ it.”
It was then that the Tulsa Parks Department approached with an idea.
A beat-up, run down old baseball field in a rough part of town needed someone to love it and make it into a home. Something of use. “It almost felt like fate,” for Dalesandro. “The old NASL team [the Roughnecks of the 1970s and 80s, used to train here.”
“I mean, Johan Cruyff played there!” enthused Dalesandro, old enough to remember.
That was Hicks Park. And the rest is history.
Turning Effort into Results
The fans and owners and players (there’s no real use messing with normal distinctions at this club) went to work getting Hicks ready. “We tore down a huge old baseball backstop and left part of it up as a top rail like at a lower-level English club,” said Dalesandro, a self described “soccer meganerd” who was energized by the few years he spent in England as a younger man.
Hicks Park is now the spiritual home of Tulsa Athletic.
It’s also a guidepost for smaller clubs from smaller towns all over the country. “You don’t have to spend a million dollars,” he said, proud of his modular locker rooms made from old shipping containers and painted in the club’s loud green with yellow pinstripes. “There’s a way to do it in this country. To be nimble and a part of a neighborhood.”
It’s no surprise that Dalesandro called the 1-0 win over FC Tulsa “a magical evening.” It was that and more for his team. “It was one of the best nights in my soccer life,” said Ugbah, on the phone from his work in the days after the game, the sound of air wrenches whizzing through the phone line. “A little amateur club knocking off the pros from our own town.
“You saw how they stormed the field after,” he said of those fans, many who’d put their backs into getting the field ready through the years. “You see what it meant to them. They’re a huge part of what we did.”
Aboubakr Diallo didn’t have the words to describe the night. “It’s still quite unbelievable,” smiled the man, originally from Gabon, in his thick West African accent. “I kept calling my parents. I just wanted to reach out to someone so that they could tell me it was real. That we really did what we did.”
Diallo, who coaches local kids, laughed when asked about the reaction among his young players to what he and his Athletic had done. “They know there’s not going to be any practice next Tuesday,” he laughed.
After the celebrations and the selfies, the afterglow with the dry earth of Hicks Park kicking up around them like gold dust, Dalesandro had all the boys over to the restaurant for a tradition going back to the very start of the club. “Three points and a shot [of scotch whiskey],” he laughed. “It’s part of the lore – but I’m pretty sure none of these young guys really like to drink scotch.”
Another Bright New Day
Now there’s a tomorrow on the horizon. As the Open Cup promises, to the winner comes another day. That day is the 25th of April. And it’s far from the cheerful, homespun hospitality of Hicks Park.
Children's Mercy Park is a 18,467-seat modern wonder which cost just shy of $241 million to build. It will host World Cup games in 2026 and is home to a one time MLS winner and four-time Open Cup champion.
Those champions, Sporting Kansas City, will be Tulsa Athletic’s opponent on the night.
“We’ll just go there and walk out of the tunnel, try to feel the atmosphere,” said Ugbah of the opportunity which – in the context of American teams sports – can only happen in the Open Cup. “An amateur club playing an MLS team, I mean, it hasn’t even sunk in yet. But I think when we walk out of the tunnel, that’s when it will become real.”
“We’re going to go there with belief,” added Diallo, speaking slowly to hammer home his point, before Grant, quiet and mild-mannered, put a bow on what’s ahead for the underdogs: “Right from the start, we can’t back down. We need to go and show them who we are.”
Who they are is Tulsa Athletic. They’re a beacon, a rebuke to all who’d throw their hands up and toss in the towel. They’ll be a long way from Hicks Park on Tuesday, but you can be sure they’ll take with them all that’s good from it.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.