Requiem for a Team

Requiem for a Team: Rayo OKC

This is the start of a new series I’ve been working on called “Requiem for a Team”. These pieces will be historical accounts of the teams that have failed, folded, self-relegated, or otherwise run into trouble.

I first started reporting on the situation in Oklahoma City in the spring of 2014 for Reckless Challenge. At the time, we were hearing reports of a possible war for OKC between the USL and NASL, but things go back even further, and I’m taking this opportunity to tell the whole story.

For a number of years, the only major soccer game in Oklahoma City was the women’s Oklahoma City FC in the WPSL. Founded in 2007, this team began play in 2008 and in 2009 was taken over by local businessman Sean Jones and sports marketing firm Sold Out Strategies, run by local businessman Brad Lund. On Valentines Day 2013, this group, along with a new entity OKC Pro Soccer LLC run by another local businessman, Tim McLaughlin, announced a team in the Premier Development League, sharing the OKCFC branding of the WPSL club. They would play at the 5,000 seat soccer stadium on the Oklahoma City University campus in uptown OKC.

This was the highest level of men’s soccer in Oklahoma City in nearly fifteen years, with the market having previously been served by the Slickers, Stampede, Warriors, Spirit, and Alliance at various levels of indoor and outdoor soccer. The most recent outdoor team in the market, the Oklahoma City Slickers, folded in 1996.

This PDL team was the planned starting point for an eventual USL-Pro team, however, in the spring of 2013, a competing USL-Pro bid emerged from a rival ownership group, Prodigal LLC, run by Bob Funk Jr. Bob Funk and Prodigal are known locally for operating the American Hockey League’s Barons and for being the former owners of the AAA baseball RedHawks. The OKCFC group of Lund and McLaughlin, believing they would likely lose out in the USL PRO application process to the arguably more experienced Prodigal-backed group, began exploring options to receive rights to own and operate an NASL franchise in Oklahoma City. Both teams also wound up competing for rights to use the same downtown OKC stadium, Taft Stadium.

On June 17th, OKCFC scored a rare win, earning the right to use Taft Stadium as their home venue with whatever pro franchise they could get. However, with the change of plans to pursue an NASL team instead of a USL-Pro team, USL issued a cease and desist order, citing a noncompete clause for all clubs in the USL system. They argued that OKCFC are contractually forbidden to move from the USL-run PDL to NASL. OKCFC countered with a lawsuit against USL, claiming that the noncompete clause in the contract was unenforceable. USL announced an expansion team for Prodigal on July 2nd, and the NASL countered by awarding a team to OKCFC on July 25th.

Cut forward to November of 2013, when the Prodigal group announced their branding, Oklahoma City Energy FC, and their home venue of Pribil Stadium, on campus at local Bishop McGuiness High School. Shortly thereafter, the Energy announced an affiliation partnership with Sporting KC of MLS, along with head coach, recently retired Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. The Energy FC planned a much more ambitious timeline than OKCFC, intending to take the field in the spring of 2014, while OKCFC intended to wait until the 2015 season.

This was the first serious blow to Sold Out Strategies and co, with the Energy possibly getting an entire year’s head start. Early into 2014, things began to fall apart for OKCFC, with Tim McLaughlin and his OKC Pro Soccer group leaving to join up with Prodigal and Energy FC. McLaughlin took with him the lease to Taft Stadium, giving the Energy yet another coup.

OKCFC responded by moving their semi-pro PDL team to the NPSL, avoiding working with USL any further, and put out statements claiming that Energy FC’s plans did not impact their own goals. Brad Lund and Sold Out Strategies returned to the picture, and despite claims that they were still pursuing their goals with NASL, no major news came out regarding OKCFC in 2014, save for their WPSL and NPSL sides.

The next major announcement came in August of 2015, when NASL commissioner Bill Peterson revealing in an interview that the league had moved on from both the Oklahoma City franchise, as well as the other stillborn 2014 expansion team, the Virginia Cavalry. However, only 11 days later, news broke on ESPN that a club in Spain’s top league was given permission to invest in OKCFC. This club was eventually revealed to be Rayo Vallecano, based in Madrid’s working class neighborhood of Vallecas. Rayo Chairman Raul Martin Presa took control of the franchise, and in November 2015, NASL announced that this joint venture, Rayo OKC, would begin play in 2016.

The Rayo OKC group consisted initially of Rayo Vallecano and their chairman Presa, former OKCFC owner Sean Jones, and Brad Lund’s Sold Out Strategies. The team hired former San Antonio Scorpions head coach Alen Marcina, a man with an NASL championship under his belt, and secured the rights to use Miller Stadium on the Yukon High School campus west of Oklahoma City.

Marcina began assembling a squad, combining a number of MLS, NASL, and USL veterans with the attention-grabbing signings of Derek Boateng, USA veteran Robbie Findlay, and Greek superstar Georgios Samaras. Rayo OKC started their NASL campaign with an impressive home crowd, drawing over 6,400, 800 more than the Energy managed the previous week. Despite only winning 3 games in the 10 game Spring season, Rayo averaged right under 5,000  for their first five home games, with Energy FC around 500  more across the same span of time. They finished a respectable, if unremarkable 8th out of 11 in the NASL Spring season, and seemed to be holding up heading into the summer break. But then, Rayo Vallecano was relegated from La Liga in May of 2016, leaving a lot of questions to be answered come July.

The Fall season saw fortunes fluctuate wildly for Rayo. Losing only 1 of their first 7 fall games and sitting 3rd on the table wasn’t enough to keep the crowds coming in, with average attendance dropping down to 3,866, nor was it enough to keep things stable off the field. Rumors emerged of increased demands from Presa, and the changes he made were enough to motivate both head coach Alen Marcina, investment partners Sold Out Strategies, and a number of other front office staff to part ways with the team. Among his demands, the team would have to bus to every away game (even out to Edmonton and New York City) to save money, and the appointment of staff from Vallecano on tourist visas to take over operations.

A brief sidebar on the bus demands. The closest team to Rayo OKC is the Indy Eleven, and that’s a 12 hour bus ride under ideal circumstances. Minnesota United is slightly further still, Jacksonville and North Carolina are 18 hours away, the Rowdies nearly 20, Miami and Fort Lauderdale at around 22, the Cosmos and Fury almost a full day’s drive, Edmonton over 28 hours away. And most ridiculously, Puerto Rico, which is an island in the Caribbean, and there’s no way in hell you can drive a bus to Puerto Rico, no matter how demanding a Spanish businessman may be.

Further rumors painted a bleak picture, with most of the office staff leaving after paychecks bounced more than once, and only 5 people sticking around for gameday operations by August 7th. The appointment of Gerard Nus as the new head coach didn’t start well either, with the team losing four of his first five games.

And this isn’t even the most ridiculous thing that happened involving Rayo OKC that fall. Following the massive shakeup in early August, minor partner Sean Jones, a staple of OKCFC since 2009, departed the team, fearing that he would lose his investment, and under cover of darkness, took half of the artificial field Rayo used from storage. Jones had purchased the turf at the beginning of the year, and Rayo had failed to compensate him for the field, so he took fourty of the ninety-two pallets of turf and locked them in a warehouse. The team had allegedly failed to communicate with him regarding his investment or the team’s future, and he planned to sell the turf in an attempt to minimize his losses. He had learned from a third party that the team was planning to sell the turf, and it was in his best interests to keep it secure.

Negotiations followed, with the team actually communicating directly, and after a week and a half of discussion, a settlement was reached and the turf was returned. But the crowds never did. The first home game under Gerard Nus drew only 1,251, and the first game after the turf fiasco, a depressing 924. The average over the last six home games plummeted down to 1,284. This tanked their overall average attendance to 3,210, compared to the Energy’s 4,950. By now, the writing was on the wall.

Rayo OKC made the playoffs by finishing fourth in the combined standings, but went out 2-1 in the first round versus the eventual champion Cosmos. The last post made to Rayo’s website and social media concerned congratulating the Cosmos and discussing the end of the year best 11. Gerard Nus stepped down after that, and returned to Spain, and nothing more has come from the team.

We do know that at some point from late November to early December, all of the players and staff were released and the phones disconnected, and the team was not represented at the NASL’s board of directors meeting in Atlanta. The league confirmed in January that the team was gone.

As for Sold Out Strategies and the WPSL Oklahoma City FC team? They’ve hired new coaching staff and continue to play in the WPSL.

That’s all for this installment of “Requiem for a Team”. I’m aiming to get back into more written content, and finally get the next chapter of MLS Origins finished. Watch this space for more.