Laurie BellComment

FROM MANCHESTER TO TULSA - LAURIE BELL: STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Laurie BellComment
FROM MANCHESTER TO TULSA - LAURIE BELL: STARTING FROM SCRATCH

In the bowels of a baseball stadium in the American South, I fiddled with orange shinpad tape, yanked my heels to my buttocks to stretch already-limber quadricep muscles, and tap-danced impatiently on plastic studded football boots.

Ten more debutants in creaseless kits waited in line. A dipping Oklahoma sun peeked inside the tunnel, beckoning. When the referees eventually signaled it was time we marched out. First on red clay then green grass then across the straight white lines of a freshly painted football pitch. In the stands, 8,000 soccer rookies rose to their feet, waved homemade flags, and glugged half-price cans of Modelo beer. Up in the posh seats, the club’s hierarchy got a first tangible taste of a team two years in the making.

It was a momentous walk for all of us: the first action on the first night in Tulsa Roughnecks history. For me, it proved the last, improbable leg of a 14-year journey that had transported me 4,000 miles from my English home. At 22 years old, after a sequence of rejection and lateral footballing progress, my professional debut had finally arrived.

Men in military uniforms trumpeted out a national anthem. For a moment, a reverential hush cloaked the excitement for soccer pulsing through this old oil city. Stood by the halfway line – where short stops might field on baseball-playing days – I considered how we all arrived here.

How had this brand new team leapt into existence? What did this crowd expect? Was our flung-together squad any good? What’s that centre back’s name again? And of all the football clubs in all the world, how the hell had I ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma?

This wasn’t English football. This hadn’t been the plan.

Statistically speaking, the first match in Roughnecks record books ended in a 1-1 draw. But as sunburned schoolteachers and hoarse local lawyers joined kids clamoring for autographs at the perimeter of the field, that balmy March night in 2015 felt decidedly like a victory. Shirts sold, fireworks crackled, fans fell in love. Giddily unpracticed, I signed programs, iPhone cases and exposed forearms. Opening night was a win for the Roughnecks and for football in the city.

There was immediate evidence of both a passion and market for soccer in Tulsa, like there is in increasing numbers of cities across North America. In the past two seasons across the top three leagues covering the US and Canada – the MLS, NASL and USL – 24 new professional soccer clubs have founded.

Tulsa Roughnecks is one part of professional soccer’s recent proliferation in America. This is one player’s insight into life at a brand new club.

Describing Tulsa Roughnecks FC as brand new is only semi-true. In 1983 a professional outdoor team from Tulsa named the Roughnecks was crowned king of the North American Soccer League. They beat the Toronto Blizzard in Soccer Bowl ’83 in front of 60,000 fans.

The glitzy NASL attracted footballing greats Johan Cruyff, George Best and New York Cosmos duo Pele and Franz Beckenbaur. Their presence helped draw impressive attendances at stadiums nationwide, with thousands more fans tuning in on TV. 

Even without a bona fide superstar, the Roughnecks enjoyed a strong local following and considerable on-field success. But when the league folded, and soccer’s grip on the imaginations of the American public loosened, the team followed suit.

Founded in 1978, the Roughnecks disbanded the season after its championship-winning year. And excluding some unsuccessful upstarts operating under the same moniker, Tulsa would go soccer-less for the next three decades. Until sometime in 2013 when Mike Melega, General Manager of the Tulsa Drillers baseball franchise, picked up his newspaper.

“I saw in the paper one day that Oklahoma City was getting professional soccer,” said Melega, the picture of an American sports executive: khaki trousers below a club-crested polo shirt and dark brown hair cropped neatly around the back and sides.

At the time, Melega’s only title was GM of the Drillers, a feeder club affiliated with a Major League Baseball team. But his staff was also tasked with managing the Drillers’ underutilised ONEOK Field, a three-year-old, $40million stadium in the heart of downtown Tulsa.

“You’re always keeping your eyes open for trends and opportunities,” continued Melega. “Professional soccer in America is growing and I thought our city needs to be at the forefront of that.”

Tulsa and the state capital, Oklahoma City, are 100 miles apart; neighbours by American geography’s standards. Research revealed to Melega that the same ownership group had already purchased “expansion rights” for soccer teams in both cities. An attractive new sports franchise and a lonely stadium: the GM foresaw a marriage. Melega, along with Brian Carroll, Vice President of Media and PR, convinced the Drillers owners – brothers Jeff and Dale Hubbard – to fund a wedding.

Dale is an ex-professional baseball player who had never watched a game of soccer. But Melega is persuasive and, trusting his judgment, the Hubbards purchased a majority share in their city’s expansion rights. A “crazy, crazy year and a half” of preparations followed. But on December 18, 2013, addressing a room of reporters and early self-declared supporters, Melega held a scarf above his head and announced that soccer was returning to Tulsa. In 2015, the team would compete in the United Soccer League, the third tier of US soccer.

That same afternoon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin I completed a Media Law exam.

I was 21, and two-and-a-half years into a university soccer scholarship. Five days earlier I had been named in college soccer’s team of the year (making this Mancunian an “All-American”), having enjoyed my finest season as a footballer. From central midfield I scored 13 goals, captaining my Division One team to league success, record home crowds, and a coveted spot in the NCAA national tournament.

I finished the exam then packed a suitcase for a Christmas return to my parents’ English home. On the flight, early visions of playing professionally in America pushed law out of my mind. At the time, I couldn’t point to Oklahoma on a map.

Every time I touch down at Manchester Airport, I’m struck by the abundance of white rectangles painted onto patchwork grass fields below. Football pitches everywhere.

While the game gains popularity in the soccer-hungry landscape of 2016 America, there remains just one other professional team within 250 miles of Tulsa. By contrast, within 25 miles of the Manchester runway sit nine professional clubs, and almost double that number at semi-pro level. Before my eighteenth birthday, I had represented three of them.

I was scouted by Stockport County’s School of Excellence as an eight-year-old and excelled in their navy colours for the next four seasons, building up a reputation in the region. So when Manchester City offered me a spot in their world-renowned academy, a tribunal ruled that hefty compensation was to be paid to County, making me one of the most expensive 12-year-olds in British football history.

A lifelong City fan, I gladly committed my teenage years to the academy’s Platt Lane training complex, where prodigies progress and dreams come true. Every Tuesday and Wednesday I was excused from school and reported to the same fields and the same coaches that reared my City heroes: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Ireland, Micah Richards and Joey Barton. Saturdays – after my own matches – I ball-boyed at the stadium. From pitch level, I watched Daniel Sturridge and Michael Johnson make Premier League debuts, convinced that one day I’d be out there too.

But the fantasy of playing professionally for my boyhood club ended when I was 16, graduated from high school and deemed not fast enough to mix it with the latest crop of demi-stars scouted from across the globe.

Two years later, a second door to dreamland shut firmly in my face.

I had completed a two-season youth team apprenticeship at Rochdale AFC, a club 108 years older than the current Roughnecks. Desperate to land contracts, my teammates and I fought to impress The Gaffer by whatever means necessary. On the pitch, we scrapped to a Youth Alliance league title. Off it, we completed chores: filling wheelie-bin ice baths with freezing water, packing training equipment into The Gaffer’s Nissan Navara and obediently scrubbing the first teamers’ boots we wished to fill.

I regularly trained with the professionals, played alongside them in the reserves, and appeared in a first team preseason match. When I was named the club’s 2011 Youth Player of the Year, I became quietly confident about my chances.

But money wasn’t flowing through the grey, North Manchester town. And the first team was stacked with experienced central midfielders.

“I just don’t see you replacing them next season,” rang The Gaffer’s crushing message in May 2011.

On the drive home I pulled into a Chadderton layby to call Dad. As the call connected, I turned off the wipers, and watched raindrops slide slowly down the windscreen. How much of my cracking voice he made out I’m not sure. But he got the message.

“We knew this was a possibility, so just keep your head up, mate,” he reassured me. “We’re going to find you a club. This is not the end. Another, maybe even a better, opportunity is going to come along for you.”

It would do, not that I could see it then. I was 18 and – after a decade on the English academy track – thought I was finally nearing destination professional football. As it turned out, I was just setting sail on the scenic way around.

Teammates found non-league teams and workaday employment. School friends packed for universities. My academics – which I had managed to successfully attain alongside football – earned offers from a number of prestigious British schools. But none interested me.

I needed football. If not, adventure. When the tears dried, I impressed at a showcase match in front of scouts from across the globe and was presented with an opportunity that ticked both boxes: Soccer! In America!

I agreed to play on a four-year football scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that would cover tuition fees and provide help towards rent and textbooks.

My flight to America’s Midwest region connected at JFK. On approach to landing I looked down: baseball fields everywhere. I sneered, silently judging a sport I didn’t understand, never imagining a few years later I would be playing on top of a matching red clay diamond.

By late 2014, Tulsa’s new team had fans, a crest and a name. A competition carried in Tulsa World, the local newspaper, allowed readers to decide what the franchise would be called. Future fans voted for a “Roughnecks” resurrection. The club assembled a supporters group – The Roustabouts – from the most enthusiastic responders to the newspaper poll and drew up diagrams of how to squeeze a football pitch onto a baseball field.

Mike Melega’s vision was taking shape. The Drillers organisation had erected a soccer club from nothing. All that remained missing was an entire squad of players and a head coach to scout then train them. But as the baseball staff believed: if you build it, they will come.

David Irving already knew Tulsa well when Melega first made contact. The Englishman, 63, played for the NASL incarnation of the Roughnecks for one season in 1980, following a career scoring goals in the UK for Workington, Oldham Athletic and Everton. He also knew the USL, having coached in the league for 16 years. He led Wilmington Hammerheads to a title in 2003 and set Glen Murray on a course to the Premier League in the process.

Irving was appointed in November 2014 and handed keys to a renovated locker room full of empty seats. The search for a squad took him and Tom Taylor, his assistant coach, across half the Northern Hemisphere.

“For the first two months I was just travelling, trying to recruit players and set up combines and look for players,” said Irving, Cumbrian tones still heavy despite a quarter-century living in America. “That was my priority and everything else would just kind of fall into place. I started during Thanksgiving. I went to combines in Chicago, to Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, LA, Vegas, Orlando, all over. Tom was in Ireland, I couldn’t make that one. So we went all over. It’s a process, and it was challenging putting a team together for February of 2015 when we started preseason.”

On their travels, the pair realised they were recruiting for a much different USL than the league they had worked in before.

In 2015, 13 new-founded expansion teams competed in the USL. The inflated league rebranded and restructured into two conferences – an east and a west – instead of one. Another five clubs began USL play in 2016, making the new-look league 29 teams strong, with yet more committed to join in 2017.

The influx is a product of two factors: the demand for professional soccer in more cities across America, and the league’s alliance with Major League Soccer in 2014.

21 of the current 29 USL teams have MLS affiliations. The relationship allows players to be loaned between teams, imitating the Spanish model, in which La Liga clubs field second rosters in divisions below.

At its core then, this evolving league is a developmental one. Evidence is in the young squads – the average age of the Roughnecks’ 2015 team was 23 – and the five substitutes a coach can field per match. Players generally sign modest contracts (with housing usually included) lasting the duration of the seven-month season, after which they’re on their own financially. According to Irving, change is good for US soccer.

“Obviously it’s great to have the MLS teams entering the league,” he said. “It brings the whole thing up to a new level. I think every team has a different philosophy whether they’re going to use the USL for development, or for senior players to get time or a combination of both or for academy players. Whichever, the league is getting better.”

Bigger and better: the USL is growing in a very American way. And with professional soccer proliferating across the nation, evermore opportunities are opening up for players. However, spots for non-US citizens remain limited to seven per team, driving competition high between foreigners chasing their American dreams. Last year, I realised mine in Oklahoma.

The week before Irving’s official appointment, my college soccer career ended in a 1-0 loss on a bitter winter night at Cleveland State University. Rooted inside the frosty center circle, I looked out into the Ohio abyss and wondered where football might take me next.

My sights were set on Major League Soccer, and weeks later I was invited to the MLS combine, an annual three-day showcase attended by head coaches from each team in the top US league. I spent the winter preparing: first, alone on frozen Wisconsin astroturfs as I finished my university semester, then in England with Blackburn Rovers’ first team. But while with Blackburn, I suffered a cruel recurrence of the patella tendonitis that haunted me as a teenager. In January 2015, I arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with a suitcase full of painkillers and doomed hopes for a miraculous recovery.

As a foreigner, I was already vying for one of a finite number of international MLS spots. That season, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo would claim four of them. To land a contract, I needed to at least outshine my college-age competition. Instead, in front of American soccer royalty, I winced through three forgettable 45-minute appearances. On draft day, the MLS commissioner called 84 names. Laurie Bell wasn’t one of them. Rejection stung afresh.

I returned to Milwaukee questioning. Why had no club ever taken a chance on me? Was something fundamental holding me back? How long could I continue failing at chasing a dream? And was there anywhere left to try?

“Some of these USL expansion teams still need players for this season,” offered my college coach Kris Kelderman. “They’re putting together whole rosters from nothing. What do you think?”

Not knowing what to think, I landed in Tulsa in late February and reported for a preseason trial. A pair of tornadoes during the week did little to reassure me I was in the right place.

If I had hesitations about the wilderness of this new USL, they evaporated upon walking into the Roughnecks’ upmarket ONEOK Field home. I found my name fixed to a locker in Premier League-class changing rooms, a kit printed with my chosen number 4, and was given a comfortable flat to sleep in. I met a young group of players impatient to prove themselves, and a staff building from the ground up. Immediately, I wanted in.

Irving was familiar with me through a recommendation from another English coach I had played under the previous summer.

“As long as you don’t want too much fucking money,” he said, half-smirking, fully serious, as I sat trembling in his underground office at the end of my trial, “we’d like you to join us here this season.”

I squirted a response, agreeing to become the eleventh signing in Tulsa Roughnecks history then floated back to my new apartment. With no Wi-Fi installed yet, I hurried a mile to the nearest Starbucks to Skype my parents. As the call boop-boop-booped into life, the clouds broke and an orange sun bounced through the windows. Two expectant faces 4,000 miles away squeezed together inside my phone screen.

“They want me,” I announced, as relief as much as joy plastered all our faces. “I’m going to be a Roughneck.”

In the most improbable location – a baseball arena in tornado alley, USA – I had finally found my first professional football home.

Upon signing – for enough money to contentedly live on, but not too fucking much – I became part of a unique squad. Given the club’s new status, no players had past experience in Tulsa, resulting in an utterly egalitarian dressing room. No captains, no cliques, no hierarchy. And initially, not much leadership, conversation or banter either. Far from the abusive preseason initiation stories I’d heard from English first year pros, I took a seat at my ONEOK Field locker, one of 21 equal parts. In Tulsa, rookies might have pumped up the balls, but our own were left unharmed.

Almost inevitably, this unfamiliarity resulted in a slow start to our season. But form steadily improved and, ultimately, playing for a brand new club proved much like playing for any other. We won as many games as we lost, the squad united through plane rides, card games and nights out on away trips to Arizona, Washington and California, and we put ourselves in contention for post-season playoff qualification. After winning our final fixture 2-0, the fate of our season hinged on Austin Aztex beating Seattle Sounders II – our rivals for a playoff berth – one week later.

When the game arrived, Melega, Irving and the rest of the organisation’s staff suggested we watch together. Over the course of the year, players had grown close to the creators of a club at which most of our contracts were close to complete. So on a hot September night we gathered inside Empire Bar, where orange Roughnecks scarves entwined with more faded football memorabilia on the walls. We knew our chances of progress were slim, and the whole night shimmered in end-of-term affection. One midfielder had landed after-season work at the pub, and nipped behind the bar to pull me a pint. By kick-off time, a Twitter invitation lured hundreds of Roustabouts cramming through the doors.

So we watched together. The staff, who had turned a fanciful idea to fill a stadium into a real life football club. The fans: regular Tulsa townsfolk wholeheartedly embracing their new hobby. And the cluster of coaches and players parachuted into this baseball playing southern US city from all corners of the globe and tasked to get the football rolling.

We did, but there would be no fairytale finish to Tulsa’s first season in the USL. Seattle won 3-2, and the settled table ranked us seventh best in the Western conference. On paper then, several of the 24 North American expansion clubs were more successful than Tulsa in 2015.

But as nail-biting TV-watching evolved into a lively end of season party, there felt like plenty to celebrate for all involved in the Roughnecks organisation. League positions and trophies are important goals for a football club. But truer measures of success for a start-up sports team are surely its reception by a city and integration into local culture.

To my mind, that has been the Roughnecks’ chief success, one that makes the club a model for future expansion teams. Irving placed as much importance on us bonding with fans – signing every autograph and sharing post-match drinks in local bars – as any onfield tactics. Melega’s staff appointed The Roustabouts de facto club ambassadors and organised the squad’s appearance at several community events.

The result was that a diverse ONEOK Field crowd produced the fifth highest average attendances in the league nationwide, a remarkable feat in the club’s first season. When jogging through downtown on cool down days, workers banged on office windows, kids hi-fived us, and pick-up truck drivers affectionately tooted horns. And one year on, now plying my trade in Sweden, I still receive regular well wishes from Tulsans via Twitter.

As the afterparty staggered to Legends – the city’s resiliently popular country dancing hall – and players, coaches, club staff and supporters joined cowboy-booted locals on the dance floor, the assimilation felt complete. To sustain this professional soccer proliferation, each new North American club must dance to its own beat. And that’s how I learned to Tulsa two-step.

Laurie is @LBellBell. Picture credit to Lori Scholl.

 

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