Soccer in Tulsa is not a new concept. The Tulsa Roughnecks Football Club is not a new concept. But the hiatus is over, and Tulsa once again has a soccer team to love, and opening night was an experiment to see how much love this team could get; how much attention they could muster.
The answer to this equation will come down to one element: concentration.
Some international travel and my undying love of sports led me to embrace the world’s game outside of whatever international competitions ESPN will broadcast. I’m no soccer expert, but learning to understand the momentum shifts and the difference between a “good” play and a “bad” play is something that I strive to understand as an educated spectator. Sure, you stand up and scream when there’s a goal, question the referee when he blows his whistle, and get up to find the restroom at halftime, but what is it about this game that still has yet to fully latch on in the United States?
Every popular American sport is a series of stopping and going. A seemingly complex play is run, the play ends in a few seconds, everyone gets up and resets themselves, the camera zooms in on the pitcher, quarterback, or shooting guard for dramatic effect, and the play starts up in line with an internal clock shared by millions across America the beautiful. Regardless of what actually happens, we always know what could happen and, if it does, about when it’s going to happen. If it doesn’t happen, there’s a commercial when we can break our concentration (or the seal), then build back up for the next tense moment. It’s a paint-by-numbers kit. The rules and pace of the game write the script that our minds follow, and we like that.
Soccer, on the other hand, plays out more as a series of brush strokes on a blank canvas. The pace of the game is dictated by the players on the pitch at that time. The pace picks up and drops at a moment’s notice without interruptions by announcers or sponsors to indicate that it might pick up soon. The common American sports fan (myself included), accustomed to these external forces and firing of synapses trained through the accumulation of every obscure rule over several seasons, has a hard time initially understanding why the crowd cheers when the scoreboard doesn’t tick upward. He or she must train his or her eye and brain to accommodate and appreciate this alternate atmosphere.
That takes concentration.
The minor league baseball stadium was sold out for the Roughnecks FC revival against Oklahoma City, as the blue-and-orange sunset graced the downtown Tulsa skyline in an array mimicking the new team’s flags, scarves, and uniforms. Hundreds of families with their young athletes offset the supporters with their European powerhouse club jerseys and dark amber beverages. The teams filed out, the National Anthem was sung, the United Soccer League president gave his blessing to the referees and team captains, and the match was underway.
I might take this next statement back, but I could sense the new chapter in the life of Tulsa begin as the Roughnecks began their opening possession. Outside the stadium, the environment was as usual: Everyone parked in the same areas and the same restaurants were filled before everyone filed in for the same start time. It was when the scoreboard clock began running that the year-plus of preparation, the assembly of the roster and coaching staff, and the igniting of the fan base became something tangible that could be felt against the fading sky. The crowd felt uneasy at initial exposure to this sensation, but it was there and it was real. The Roughnecks were real.
The first brush strokes on the canvas were blue and orange of nature. Tulsa’s starting XI were a large, physical bunch that visibly offset their small and nimble OKC Energy FC counterparts. Both of these teams were still getting a feel of playing with each other, so at first the brute size of the Roughnecks was working in their favor. They quickly amassed possession, attacks, set pieces, shots, and shots on goal. For a brand new soccer team, giving the crowd these cues that something good was happening helped build momentum. It gave a reason to focus, to keep the smartphones at bay. Around the 36th minute, a great cross into the box resulted in a Roughneck shot ricocheting off the post and I found myself standing and grasping my hair along with a thousand or so others. The game was creating drama and writing a beautiful script. Could Tulsa keep it up?
The lesson in concentration extends to those playing the game in addition to those watching it. After the careen off the goalpost, Oklahoma City started to move the ball at their pace. A corner kick in the final minute of the first half put the first dent in the scoreboard, the first blemish in the history of the club. A few seconds later, the halftime whistle blew and no one had time to immediately respond to what had happened.
OKC took it as their own momentum, and began the second half on a tear that put the Roughnecks backfield to the fire. The captain goalkeeper was barking out more orders as more set pieces were having to be defended. An uneasiness settled over the crowd. Those sitting around me were beginning to assign blame to the players and coaching staff. Even worse, the flickers of iPhones and tablets started to replace the watchful eyes, as the script no longer favored the one everyone wanted to see played out.
Then, in the 71st minute, a kid who looked like he’d been signed off the school bus eked the ball into the back of the net in front of his own supporter’s section and was greeted by cheers, ecstatic teammates, and orange smoke against the stadium lights. Everyone was on their feet, feeling the elation of seeing that the team could accomplish a tangible goal (literally). The new atmosphere over the baseball stadium felt justified; the show had a reason to go on. A few volleys finished out the final few minutes and the match ended with a draw, followed by a fireworks show enjoyed by children watching alongside the players of their new team.
Attending this match didn’t make me the John Wooden of soccer (Ray Hudson, maybe) but my growing fandom of the sport has taught me that one of the toughest tasks in sports is to score a goal in a professional soccer match. It takes eleven players focusing on each other and in tune with the pace of that particular game to foil the opponent and find the back of the net. That requires training, concentration, and brotherhood that extends far past what a single person can do. Soccer is a gorgeous and dramatic game with an eloquent and graceful script that plays out like the rise and fall of a feather against a soft breeze. It brings its own flavor, its own environment, its own tenacity to flourish and tell its own story.
The new Roughnecks are still an experiment, dipping their feet into the social fabric of their city. They’re going to lose a few games and have questions to answer, and that’s okay. If the people of Tulsa know best, the city will cultivate the atmosphere that the team provides and allow their brush strokes to beautify and electrify the culture of the city.
It’ll just take a little concentration.