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Hope for Future Bright Amongst FC Tulsa Despite Playoff Disappointment

By FC Tulsa, 11/11/21, 10:00AM CST

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Bourgeois, Suárez Epitomize Team's Resiliency in 2021

TULSA – “It was a disaster.”

Head coach Michael Nsien spoke those words to the media in St. Petersburg, Florida after giving up half a dozen goals to the league’s regular season champions, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for his FC Tulsa squad who had fought through so much adversity in 2021.

From the get-go FC Tulsa was under pressure, initially stopping several waves of the Rowdies’ attack before a ball slipped through the backline and past keeper Austin Wormell.

Another Tampa goal inside the opening minute of the second half followed by a set piece header had Tulsa searching for the most epic of comebacks on the road in front of a hostile crowd.

Despite a brilliant strike by Joaquín Rivas to pull FC Tulsa within 3-1, two questionable yellows to Eric Bird midway through the second half set off a snowball that never slowed.

There’s no consolation prize for losing a close match in the playoffs. A 1-0 loss is the same as a 10-0 loss. Needing two goals to complete a comeback, Nsien played for the miracle, throwing numbers forward to generate chances against the league’s best defense.

“To go down two [goals] to them, we just kept opening up and they kept scoring,” said Nsien. “You can’t go down multiple goals to a team like that and open up. Just to contain them takes 11 disciplined players to begin with. We had to start cheating in areas.”

The strategy was successful in that FC Tulsa scored a second goal, a 25-yard wonderstrike from Darío Suárez that made SportsCenter’s Top-10 plays. However, the price to be paid for sacrificing defense for offense was three counter-attack goals allowed in the final minutes of the match to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 6-2 final rout.

Much like how the scoreline on Saturday night wasn’t indicative of the full 90 minutes, the result itself wasn’t representative of FC Tulsa’s 2021 season that was full of adversity and resiliency.

After an uncharacteristically porous first half of the season defensively that saw FC Tulsa concede 29 goals through its first 16 matches, the club scrapped its way back to being a respectable defense in the USL Championship. The back line allowed just 19 goals over the second half of the season and allowed multiple goals in only four of those 16 matches.

Just four of the top 13 players in minutes made it through the year missing only one or zero matches with injury in 2021 – Rodrigo da Costa, Marlon Santos, Matt Sheldon and Jason Johnson. The club had to endure various stretches of the season without lineup mainstays Darío Suárez, Bradley Bourgeois, Jorge Corrales, Eric Bird, Mo Jadama, Joaquín Rivas, Lebo Moloto and Sean Lewis all due to injuries and/or international duty.

Despite those absences, FC Tulsa finished the 2021 season with the best record and most points of any year in franchise history.

“The guys were resilient all year, they showed very good moments, a lot of brotherhood, and a lot of comaraderie,” said Nsien. “That is how we got to this point to begin with, despite the adversities, ups, and downs at the beginning of the season.”

No one better epitomized that adversity than two of FC Tulsa’s most prominent players, Darío Suárez and Bradley Bourgeois, who each fought through severe injuries and returned to the pitch earlier than expected to try and help the team reach its goals.

For Bourgeois, it was a broken foot suffered early in FC Tulsa’s 4-3 win at ONEOK Field on June 17 against Sporting Kansas City. Using natural adrenaline to combat the pain, Bourgeois finished the match before realizing his foot was broken. A 6-8 week timetable for rest was prescribed with a slow build up back to match speed. Only five weeks after the injury, Bourgeois was back in the captain’s armband on the pitch for Tulsa, fighting shooting pain in every step. He never missed another minute all season, helping carry FC Tulsa into the postseason.

“I’m very proud of this group,” said Bourgeois after Saturday night’s loss. “We’ve had a very, very up and down season. Kudos to every single one in the locker room. They stuck together, and we made it to this point. We’ve still yet to get over that hump [of winning a playoff match] which is super disappointing, but I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

The goals have come in bunches for forward Darío Suárez in his two seasons at FC Tulsa. His 18 goals in that stretch are the most for any Tulsa player and have rocketed Suárez into 4th in the franchise’s USL Championship history in goals scored. So, when Suárez crumpled to the turf in Kansas City on September 25 after colliding at full speed with the Kansas City keeper, it had the potential to derail Tulsa’s offense.

While the focus for many was on a missed call nullifying the subsequent Tulsa go-ahead goal, Suárez’s status moving forward was in doubt. X-rays revealed multiple facial fractures. Despite the severity of the injury, Super Darío was fitted for a mask to wear while playing and didn’t miss a match until having an initial surgery midway through October.

After three matches out of the lineup, Suárez returned to the pitch, with several fewer teeth following surgery, for the final two regular season matches and the playoff match where he scored. As competitive as Suárez is, he never felt his game was the same following the collision in Kansas City.

“From the personal side, it’s been a tough year for me. I scored a lot of goals and helped the team. The hardest moment was my accident – when I crashed into the goalkeeper in Kansas City. I had to play a couple of games with a serious injury in my face. After I had my surgery, I tried to come back early to help the team. Unfortunately, I had this injury right before the Playoffs, and I couldn’t continue to score as many goals and help the team.”

Unlike Bourgeois, whose foot has now had time to heal, Suárez still has a road to full recovery. Offseason reconstructive surgeries await the forward, who should be ready again for action at the start of the 2022 season.

Despite the disappointing defeat at Tampa, there is renewed hope for the future of FC Tulsa, still just one and a half full seasons into the re-launch of the franchise. A foundation consisting of back-to-back Playoffs appearances as well as Black Gold Derby wins has the club set for prolonged USL Championship success.

“I said this last year at the end of the season – we’re setting a standard,” said Bougeois. “I think we’ve raised that bar even more. Yes, we still didn’t get over that hump of winning our first playoff game as an organization and a club, but we set a new bar, and it’s really just the beginning for this club. There are major, positive takeaways this year, and I don’t think anyone in this locker room should put their heads down for this club and this season. It was a good one, it was a positive one.”

Disappointment about the present and positive expectation for the future are two feelings that concurrently existed as players and staff left Al Lang Stadium last Saturday night. Some chose to take the team bus back to the hotel, while others walked the three blocks through downtown St. Petersburg absorbed in their thoughts. By the time the team boarded its flight back to Tulsa on Sunday morning, smiles had returned to faces as players looked ahead to an offseason spent seeing family and friends.

“I imagine the next couple days, I will get to reflect a little bit,” said Nsien. “It has been a good year. To get to a Playoff is not an easy task. As a club, we are growing and going in the right direction. We have played a great foundation with back-to-back Playoffs. We will continue to improve and make the expectations even higher in the next year.”

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