By GRANT CZUBINSKI – USLSoccer.com Contributor
Monday, March 14, 2016
TULSA, Okla. - Throngs of excited fans streamed through the gates of ONEOK Field on Saturday for Tulsa Roughnecks FC’s second annual Fan Fest, but the bigger thrill came for the club’s coaches and players who were thoroughly impressed by the fans’ support and welcome.
Between answering questions about preseason and expectations for the club’s second season in the USL, Coach David Irving giddily interacted with several shy children, urging them to speak with the players and thanking them for coming to the event. To Irving, the gathering provided a great platform for the team to engage with the fans, whom he readily praised.
“Last year our fans were outstanding,” he said. “I think it is a lot better this year and I think our attendance will increase. It is a great place to play and the players love it; the environment, the whole thing."
The Fan Fest not only provided the team the opportunity to socialize with fans, it also offered the coaches and players a brief respite from preseason.
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Just a few days prior to the event, the Roughnecks returned from a successful, yet trying, week in Florida, where they competed in a series of friendlies. The week-long stint started off promisingly after Roughnecks FC easily dispatched Florida Gulf Coast University 5-1 in the club’s first preseason game. The Roughnecks followed the victory up with a 3-3 draw against Miami Fusion FC on March 1.
The club were finding no problem finding the back of the net and morale was high. The mood within the Roughnecks camp changed considerably the following day, after several players were involved in a car accident.
While the club were traveling to Jacksonville from Fort Lauderdale, a van carrying six players was involved in an accident that injured several players, with midfielder Henri Manhebo requiring the most treatment. Thankfully nobody was seriously injured in the accident and the event proved nothing more than a scare, though the wreck did provide an extra challenge for Irving and the club.
With several players unable to take the field following the accident, the Roughneck players not involved in the crash were forced to play more minutes than they were ready to and that the coaching staff were comfortable with. After a trying week, Irving, though exhausted, was able to find a silver lining.
“It was one of those unfortunate things,” he said. “I feel really blessed. It could have been a heck of a lot worse than what happened, so that is unfortunate, it is life, but we were blessed. We only had 14 players [after the wreck, for the club’s two remaining games in Florida]. It was definitely a challenge, very stressful, and it was stressful on me and my staff, plus the whole organization. The players really, really held on well. All in all, as I said, we have nothing to complain about. We were blessed in Florida, with that accident that there was nothing life-threatening.”
Last season’s leading goal scorer, Sammy Ochoa, echoed Irving’s sentiments.
“Thankfully nobody was badly hurt,” he said. “I think that is going to help us in the long run and make the team come closer together.”
At this point in the preseason, the Roughnecks have played several more games than during their inaugural season last year. The results, though somewhat significant, are not what is most important in the long run. Irving and his players acknowledged that fact, and the difference this preseason has meant for the club.
“Well, obviously, we’re off to a better start,” Irving said. “Last year we had a lot of snow during the first two weeks of our preseason and, you know, putting the team together late, but, all in all, no complaints. There’s peaks and valleys in preseason, and it is no good peaking at the beginning of March. That is preseason. I’ve been in the game long enough to understand that, but in saying that, you learn more in defeat than you do winning games in being successful. You learn more about the team, the character, the chemistry when you lose some games, you see what our character is all about.”
Last season’s USL Rookie of the Year Finalist, Brady Ballew, had a similar opinion.
“At the end of the day, results in preseason aren’t the biggest deal, it’s kind of how you play,” he said. “I think the focus now is tightening up that defense and finding that core group of 11 guys that is going to start the first game of the season.”
With the start of the 2016 USL season less than a fortnight away, the Roughnecks’ aim is now to put it all together much earlier than they did last season. After missing out on a playoff place by three points a season ago, a fast start would give the club a major boost to reaching its goal.“We’ve got to start a little better than we did last year,” Irving said. “The first four or five games, we’ve got to be better. It is a tough league to play catchup all the time. It really is a tough league, a lot of travel, a lot of tough games. We open up with Rio Grande, which they’re putting a strong organization there on and off the field, and we’ve got to focus on what we’ve got to do and be better prepared than we were last year and get off to a heck of a start. That is key to me.”