Diving into FC Tulsa’s big changes in the USL Championship

Quick
Hits
  • FC Tulsa have been making some major moves in the USL Championship recently: they’ve changed coaches, traded one of their stars, and added a new team president 
  • What’s next for Tulsa? Can they salvage their season? And what does the future look like? 
Apr 19, 2022; Frisco, Texas, USA; The Tulsa Roughnecks FC and fans celebrate a goal by Tulsa Roughnecks FC defender Bradley Bourgeois (22) against FC Dallas during the first half at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week, FC Tulsa decided to part ways with head coach Michael Nsien, who had been their manager since 2018. Tulsa-born, Nsien led FC Tulsa to the playoffs on two separate occasions and began 2022 with three wins in five games. At that point, Tulsa’s playoff odds sat at 83%. Their new signings were hitting too, particularly in the back with central defender Ronald Rodriguez, defensive midfielder Petar Cuic, and fullback Gabby Torres.

Things were going well for Tulsa.

The problems

However, between that hot start and the decision to fire Nsien on June 19th, Tulsa won just one match, dropping down to a 23% chance of postseason qualification. They truly struggled to cover for some of their most important players while they were away on international duty: Joaquin Rivas and Ronald Rodriguez had big games with El Salvador and Jorge Corrales went off with Cuba. 

Further, midfielder Lebo Moloto, one of the USL’s all-time assist leaders, was sidelined for large portions of the year. Experiments with a back three never turned out either.

Underneath the poor on-field performances, things seemed to sour in the locker room. In discussions with numerous former and current Tulsa players, it became clear that Nsien was an emotional and fiery manager. Some criticized his style and cited poor communication as an issue, but others praised his player development and relationship-building as a strength. Given the recent run of form, that style seems to have grated on important players and disenchanted the squad.

Changes

As a club, FC Tulsa was sold to the Craft family in 2019, rebranding from the Roughnecks moniker to their current white-and-gold look and FC Tulsa name shortly after the sale. Their attendance now hovers around 3,500, up from an average of 3,000 from the pre-COVID era, but that number is still towards the lower end of the USL Championship.

Sources within the club indicate that budget cuts had been looming within the organization – and moving Rivas to Miami FC last week gives credence to that suggestion. The Salvadoran forward is the second-leading goalscorer in FC Tulsa history and the runner-up in appearances and minutes played. Nonetheless, Tulsa’s talisman was traded to Miami for Sean McFarlane, a player who projects as a depth piece behind captain Bradley Bourgeois. 

Among the various exits, Tulsa hired veteran executive Sam Doerr as the club’s president last month. Doerr oversaw San Antonio FC’s move to the USL and led the wildly successful rebranding of Phoenix Rising. He’s universally known to be a smart and amiable figure across the league. Doerr seemingly has been given license to reshape FC Tulsa across the board and once the offseason hits, it will be fascinating to track the changes.

On the field, FC Tulsa’s 2022 isn’t yet a lost cause. Donovan Ricketts, the interim coach, used an unchanged system in a debut loss to Memphis, but his side won against Charleston on Saturday to come within three points of the last playoff spot in the East. The players I spoke to after the coaching change were bullish on a rebound and expressed excitement about Ricketts’ leadership. Maybe this coaching change will result in on-field progress during the rest of the season. Looking long-term, Tulsa has a bright future if Doerr’s record is any indication.