Room for Two: Soccer in Arizona is Growing Up

Fairly or not, the question most frequently asked about National Premier Soccer League debutant FC Arizona after its launch last summer was some version of, “Is there room for two professional soccer teams in the Phoenix area?”

I’ll admit that I was unsure myself, if for no other reason than a lack of data. It had never been done here. But now?

Oh, absolutely.

Months after announcing its presence at an event on the campus of Mesa Community College, FC Arizona played its first-ever home match – a friendly against the UPSL’s Real San Jose – on Saturday night at the college’s John D. Riggs Stadium. The attendance was announced as 2,842, but I can tell you, it felt like more.

Fans stood in line to get in, packed the stands, and milled in every corner of the historic football venue. The Rampant Supporters paraded down Southern Avenue and into the stadium with purpose and passion. Their smoke would later add exclamation points to the offensive explosion displayed by the home team.

Players who had been subbed off began signing autographs before the match even ended, and were hard-pressed to satisfy the throngs of fans young and old who waited patiently for their new heroes until long after the final whistle.

“It’s all coming together,” said goalkeeper Andrew Weber, a hometown favorite, and MLS Cup winner in 2015. “Hats off to all the boys, the organization, [team owner] Scott [Taylor], [head coach] Aidan [Davison]…everyone’s coming together, so it’s great.”

The NPSL is not sanctioned as a fully “professional” league, but FCA has taken the approach of bringing in professional-caliber players, and seems committed to putting on an impressive show in the process.

Across town, the big-spending, highly ambitious Phoenix Rising FC played a friendly of its own. That club’s mere existence these past three years has played a big part in soccer’s visibility here in the Valley, and its plans for the future are exciting, to say the least.

Founded in 2014, PRFC (until recently known as Arizona United SC) occupies a franchise in the United Soccer League, a professional organization now sanctioned as Division 2 in the United States, behind only Major League Soccer. In January, Rising FC submitted an application to join MLS, at the latter’s invitation. The club is constructing a “pop-up” stadium at McClintock Drive and the Loop 202 that will seat around 6,000 fans this season, and reportedly has a top-to-bottom plan to construct a much larger, privately funded venue, should MLS formally expand to the Valley.

So, one could be forgiven for being pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support from the fans at MCC, out to support a new club in a league many were learning of for the first time. And the first league match is still days away.

FCA leadership has been candid from Day One about its ambitions to engage the families and youth of Phoenix’s East Valley, arguably the densest soccer hotbed in the Southwest. Grassroots presence at youth soccer matches – I ran into owner Scott Taylor at my own son’s U-8 match last fall – relationships with local civic leaders, and a genuine effort to partner with area colleges all add up to success at the turnstile, and that’s to be commended.

Contrary to any concern over a contentious existence between FC Arizona and Phoenix Rising, FCA has demonstrated that its marketing efforts can indeed uncover a segment of soccer fans that may or may not have already been interested in supporting a local pro team. Furthermore, I encourage both clubs to continue with the mentality that there is room for both, because acting otherwise would undermine the success which has already been realized.

Don’t look now, world, but Phoenix has two pro soccer teams, and we like it.

While it’s still early days, FCA can continue to solidify its base over the next two Saturday nights before it goes head-to-head with a PRFC regular season match for the first time on March 25th. Rising FC will be opening its 2017 USL season in its new home against Toronto FC II, while FC Arizona faces Albion SC Pros at John D. Riggs.

Regardless of how attendance at either club is affected as the year rolls on, there’s something here, something bordering on the magical, that has the potential to enchant a growing number of educated, committed soccer fans in this part of the desert. We’ve come a long way, Phoenix. Let’s keep it going.