How Tulsa Athletic Became the Toast of USOC-World

Dan Vaughn caught up with the gang at Tulsa Athletic – the all-amatuer reigning NPSL champions looking to build on their giant-killing Open Cup successes of 2023.
By: Dan Vaughn

There’s this moment when you’re no longer the outsider. When, suddenly, you’re not the edgy weirdo but instead the world’s decided you’re the cool kid – and everybody likes you.

That was Tulsa Athletic in last year’s Open Cup

Headed into their sixth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (technically they’ve qualified for seven competitions, but COVID turned one into a technicality) the club had low expectations. But after knocking off fellow amateurs Brazos Valley Cavalry FC (of USL League Two) in the First Round, the Oklahomans did the unexpected and beat crosstown professional side FC Tulsa (of the DII USL Championship). 

For club co-founder and local restaurateur, Sonny Dalesandro, that 1-0 win was one of the best moments of the year. “The final whistle being blown was pretty surreal.” The win took Tulsa Athletic from a loveable amateurs to bonafide giant-slayers.

It also put the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) club into a matchup with a Major League Soccer (MLS) side, and four-time Open Cup champion, Sporting Kansas City.

And though that match against Sporting KC ended 3-0 in favor of the predictable winner, it didn’t dampen Dalesandro’s enthusiasm for the Open Cup.

“Nothing in this sport in our country has as much history and prestige behind it,” said the man, whose hands-on approach and boundless enthusiasm are well known. “We’ve been very fortunate just to participate in it [the Open Cup] several times. Getting to play the role of David/Cinderella was an absolute honor. We always pull for the smaller clubs in the competition.”

Last year’s Open Cup thriller at Hicks Park against FC Tulsa

Tulsa’s 2023 Cup run ended in the Third Round, but it was the longest run of any of the amateur clubs, earning Tulsa Athletic the $25,000 check that comes with that sort of success each year. It’s an achievement that also means the club likely won’t be underestimated in this year’s tournament – the 109th edition of the U.S. Open Cup. 

Aaron Uggie Ugbah has played with Tulsa for close to eight years and “magical” is the word he uses to describe last year’s Cup. “Everything just played in our favor...It was one of those things that was kind of destined for us. I know nothing is handed out, especially with our team, but I think it was more of we're here, time to make it happen.”

“[When] we knew that we were hosting FC Tulsa, I was like, oh, this is actually happening,” Ugbah remembered of that magical night at Hicks Park, Tulsa Athletic’s spiritual home. It was one of those things that was set up for a whole David and Goliath. Tulsa versus Tulsa.”

The amateurs of Athletic had lost to the Tulsa pros in previous competitions, so getting the win last year was a massive deal for Ugbah and his club – especially so because it came at home.

The Cupset of FC Tulsa led to a clash with MLS’ Sporting KC

Ugbah was a big part of Tulsa’s success last year, both in the Open Cup and in the club’s NPSL national championship. And he knows that people will expect more from the club in this year’s competition.

“We all know that last year was definitely our year and we put in a lot of work to get to where we were. If there wasn't a huge target on our back before, there definitely is now…If you're playing Tulsa Athletic, you're playing last year's [NPSL] national champions. So if we weren't getting their best game before, we're definitely gonna get it this year.”

Dalesandro sees it the same way, but also feels that the much-publicized modifications to this year’s competition will make a deep run even harder. “I think the format makes it harder for any amateur club to go on a run. In the past, the First Round amateur-vs-amateur game could be pretty essential in terms of working out the kinks and preparing for professional opposition in the Second Round. 

Tulsa Athletic fans turned out at KC’s Children's Mercy Park last year

“We appreciate the respect, but at the end of the day, the ref’s going to blow the whistle and we’re going to lock horns,” Dalesandro added. “The ultimate goal is to put on a good performance and do the badge proud.”

Just like last year’s match against FC Tulsa, this year’s matchup against a professional side will be held at Hicks Park. Sonny has long hoped that the park would be something special in lower league American soccer and he’s willing to put in the work to get there.

“We want to invest in Hicks,” said Dalesandro, often seen dutifully mowing the grass at Hicks. “We want to continue to elevate the property. We want it to be a template for all small aspiring clubs who want to bring this game to their community. The fans love it there. It’s our home. Dad [Dalesandro Sr.] will be making Italian sausage sandwiches on the sideline.

“The Atmosphere should be electric.”

Dalesandro may be hoping to replicate the club’s 2023 run, but he isn’t underestimating the Northern Colorado Hailstorm – a club with their own Open Cup history.
The Open Cup returns to Hicks park on March 19th when Athletic host NoCol Hailstorm

“They’re a great club. Honestly, we view them as one of the most dangerous teams in the competition. They’re a club who’s garnering a reputation for being a really tough out for pro clubs, let alone amateur sides. We expect them to be very fit from training at elevation and we know that Coach [Eamon] Zayed will have them very organized tactically.”

On March 19th, the two will lock horns: a Division III pro club versus a seasoned and talented amateur side – and the world will find out whose day it is. Either way, no one will be surprised if Tulsa Athletic earn another famous Open Cup win. Because that’s the difference between being an outsider and an amateur soccer team with experience – and one that knows how to win big matches.

Dan Vaughn is a veteran soccer journalist and the founder and editor of Protagonist Soccer. Follow him at @TheDanVaughn on Twitter/X.