Soccer in the Valley of the Sun
The sentiment from Sporting AZ FC’s Director of Operations, Kyle Kepner, is optimistic. Even in the parking lot following a tough 2nd Qualifying Round loss to El Paso’s Southwest FC, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about the state of soccer in Phoenix and at Sporting AZ as a club. The Phoenix area has become a focal point in a national sense now as Phoenix Rising FC became the second area club to reach the Final of a national league this year, Sporting AZ being the first.
Sporting AZ’s run to the UPSL Final in the Spring season 2018, as well as a run to the US Open Cup’s Third Round which included a defeat of their USL finalist counterparts in Phoenix, put Sporting into a much larger spotlight than their conference might provide. The Southwest Conference of the UPSL is still young, and with it being one of the smallest conferences in the league, it may be implied that it is also one of the weakest. That proved to be a poor assumption as Kyle added, “It’s strong. It’s small but if you look at how we matched up against FC Grande [Las Cruces, NM], Soutwest FC. and MSC [United Mesa, AZ] over the course of the season…we got to Denver and found that we were an excellent match for the other conference champs too. That was very exciting and very fulfilling and it should be encouraging to anyone who’s involved with a club in this conference.”
Sporting’s run last season may have put them on the map in terms of those who follow amateur soccer and certainly those who follow the Open Cup. What does the run mean for the club and the most often overlooked members of the soccer community when it’s discussed online: the players? “Sporting AZ FC is a place for young talents to get a place to play on a bigger stage…We have a ton of ex-pro players on our club. The stories they can tell about their journey to where they are now are phenomenal…Tony Cascio is a terrific example. He was finished with his pro career he thought and was encouraged to pick it back up and now he’s a key piece of our organization. The more encouragement and stories we can get in front of the youth out there, that is the project here.”
The philosophy of encouragement and bringing players through the club and sending them on to bigger things is one that we’ve seen but the connection to the higher levels of Phoenix soccer is perhaps unique. “Having beaten Phoenix Rising in the Open Cup and earning their respect instead of turning them off to us was just phenomenal,” Kepner explained, “We have an embarrassment of riches in Arizona. We got to play the Rapids in Tucson, we played Sporting Kansas City on Rising’s field. The integration allows our players opportunities against great opposition.” There is no formal relationship with Phoenix Rising, but these contacts and a willingness to work with outside entities at the professional level have granted Sporting AZ opportunities that some teams deny themselves.
With this focus on the ideals and philosophy of the club, one might forgive Sporting for focusing on that and putting the more pragmatic parts of the game to the side. Make no mistake, Sporting AZ is as much about winning as they are about improving the quality of the game in the Phoenix area. When asked about the goals for 2019, Kyle did not hesitate, “First and foremost we want to win the conference.” That will become just that much harder of a goal this year, with the addition of High Plains Drifters FC and Tapatio FC (both of Amarillo, TX) and Summerlin Red Rocks (Las Vegas, NV). The quality of the squads is still to be seen, but the travel and quantity of clubs will make the conference that much more competitive. But with that expansion, Kyle sees a lot more potential for expansion in the UPSL Southwest. “I want to be really greedy and say that we can get a nice conference right here in the Valley [of the Sun, the Phoenix Metropolitan Area]. Certainly it’s possible to have multiple teams in Tucson. It would be great in the coming years if we could see a little more regionalization.” Certainly as the Southwest grows and the communities embracing their squads expand, it does not seem crazy to see Sporting AZ in an Arizona Division of the Southwest Conference, with teams like FC Grande and Southwest FC headlining a Camino Real Division in New Mexico and West Texas (what can I say, I’m a history nerd and that would be cool. Look it up).
The one area where Phoenix is somewhat lacking is in available fields and stadiums. Kyle lamented, “There’s a severe lack of quality playing surfaces on [the east side] of town relative to the number of youth teams and now UPSL teams.” There is currently an initiative focused on changing that. Mesa Plays has put forward a plan that would put a $60 million sports complex in Mesa that would include surfaces for practically every sport played in the United States. “Part of the initiative is a 2,500 seat stadium which would revolutionize how our clubs are viewed as far as being attractive to players and fans around town,” said Kyle. This is a potential game changer for the area as perception of the club certainly impacts how sponsors and likely supporters act in regard to the club. The difference between being viewed as a representative of the community and being viewed as an amateur or even youth team, can be a legitimate venue. With this change, the Southwest, and Sporting AZ could remain a focal point of the UPSL. (Editor’s Note: Sadly Mesa Plays “Question 5” failed at the polls 46%-54%)
Sporting AZ has focused on improving the quality not only of their play on the field, but also of their soccer community. With the profile of the club and conference being consistently raised over the last year, and expansion on the horizon, we could be looking at this “small soccer community” and seeing all the progress that belief in a community, its players, and supporters can provide.