Tulsa scores with pro soccer
Restaurateur Sonny Dalesandro co-owns Tulsa’s new professional soccer team. The Tulsa Athletics’ home field is the former Drillers Stadium.
I was born in 1980, just two years after the Tulsa Roughnecks brought professional soccer to our fair city. But before I even started kindergarten, they were gone.
As I grew, all I knew of the team came from my occasional dining experiences at (the original) Charlie Mitchell’s. Mitchell, the Scottish favorite who played for and coached the Roughnecks, had transitioned from the sports world into the culinary world. And now, Sonny Dalesandro, only a couple of years older than myself, has done the reverse.
In May, a crowd of approximately 3,200 took in the inaugural game of the Tulsa Athletics, the first professional soccer team to call T-Town home in nearly 30 years. Co-owners Dalesandro, proprietor of the eponymous Italian eatery in the SoBo district, and Dr. Tommy Kern partnered to bring the league to Tulsa.
After playing soccer professionally in his youth, Dalesandro wanted to see if he still had what it takes. But a realization soon came that training and playing while running a business didn’t seem feasible.
“Essentially the sun had set on my career as a player,” the restaurateur says. “The competitive side of me was and is absolutely as strong ever, though. So, as the sun sets, it also rises.”
His dream didn’t die; it simply changed. After some time in touch with representatives at the National Premier Soccer League, Dalesandro decided to make a move.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when talking about pro soccer in Tulsa. Though their tenure was quite brief, people speak of the Roughnecks with such reverence. Let’s not forget, they even won the Soccer Bowl in 1983. At the height of the team’s popularity, the Roughnecks’ average game attendance at the old Skelly Stadium approached a whopping 20,000. And since that time, soccer has become a staple in the lives of American children like never before. Every parent I know seems to always be coming from or heading to a soccer game. The timing seems right for a rebirth.
In a subtle nod to our sports history, the Athletics’ home field is located in the old Drillers Stadium on the corner of East 15th Street and South Yale Avenue. After sitting dormant for years since the team headed downtown to ONEOK Field, it’s great to see the stadium lit up at night. Dalesandro agrees.
“There’s just something wonderful and incredibly nostalgic about walking through the turnstiles that a lot of us walked through when we were younger and seeing a seemingly doomed landmark come back to life,” he says.
To be completely honest, I’ve never played soccer or seen a full game in person. But as a champion of this city who wants it to have a full swath of offerings, it’s a delight to see this development happening in such a homegrown, organic fashion.
There’s certainly room to grow if the Athletics want to reach those heights of yesteryear, but if optimism is any indication of ambition, the future looks bright. Five years from now, Dalesandro hopes to have an average game attendance that would make possible a bid for a Major League Soccer franchise.
“Our goal is to hoist the MLS cup the same way that the Tulsa Roughnecks hoisted the Soccer Bowl in 1983,” he says. “The Tulsa Athletics are a family, and we welcome any Tulsan with open arms.”
But remember, no hands.