As professional baseball sunsets in Tucson, FC Tucson is reached amazing heights even before a soccer-dedicated stadium is built. FC Tucson starts its second season May 18 as a Premier Development League team, essentially AA soccer minor league. Beyond its own games, FC Tucson has made it a point to pair each of its games this season with games involving champion teams from a half dozen local soccer leagues. The Chapman Tucson Champions League was just announced April 23.
“We want to show what we’re building here is for the community, not just for a set of professionals,” team co-owner Jonathan Pearlman said.
The 2010s are the decade for soccer at all levels in Tucson. Before 2010, exactly zero Major League Soccer teams had played in Tucson. Now 10 teams – half the league – have taken to the pitch in Tucson, as have two national teams from Denmark and Canada, the first time Tucson hosted an international friendly soccer match.
In the past year, the long maligned Kino Sports Complex started transforming into Arizona’s premiere soccer facility. What used to be Arizona Diamondbacks practice fields north of Ajo Way were converted into soccer fields in 2012. Right now, the field closest to the YMCA is FC Tucson’s home field, known as the Kino Sports Complex North Grandstand (Field No. 5). Next year, FC Tucson will play in what for now is being called the Kino Sports Complex North Stadium.
The $2.8 million stadium is a collaboration between FC Tucson and Pima County to build a 1,800-seat stadium with a half roof where Field No. 1 is now. Additional bleachers behind the goals bring seating to 2,480, and the 850-seat bleachers can be brought over from Field No. 5 to take capacity to 3,330. “The stadium is expandable to 5,000 seats. That has meaning at the next level,” said FC Tucson co-owner Greg Foster, referring to the United Soccer League Pro level, the AAA minor league. He said, ultimately, a 15,000-20,000 soccer stadium is not impossible for the Kino Sports Complex, and neither is FC Tucson graduating to the USL Pro level.
The ground breaking ceremony for the stadium was April 25 and Pima County expects to have the stadium done by November. Some 150 soccer enthusiasts showed up, including FC Tucson’s boisterous supporter group, the Cactus Pricks, who got repeated prompts from Pima County Supervisors Ramon Valadez and Richard Elias to give a soccer cheer.
As recently as 2010, soccer in Tucson equaled the Fort Lowell Shootout and community soccer leagues. Today, FC Tucson has deep relationships with MLS and half of its teams. Without much publicity in 2012, FC Tucson had the 12th highest attendance in its rookie season among 73 PDL teams – and the only reason the club didn’t rank higher was the Kino Sports Complex North Grandstand capacity topped out at less than 1,000.
FC Tucson is pioneering spring training for Major League Soccer. Nowhere else has a local soccer team assembled spring training packages for nine MLS teams that includes accommodations, meals, transportation, training fields, weight training facilities and opponents. MLS spring training has typically involved a team going somewhere and picking up a game.
The MLS team Sporting Kansas City was training in Phoenix and was looking for competition. FC Tucson co-owner Rick Schantz’s friend Peter Draksin, soccer coach at Grand Canyon University, suggested Schantz give Sporting Kansas City a call.
Just before the Kansas City connection, City Councilman Paul Cunningham called Foster and Schantz, both deeply involved in the Fort Lowell Soccer Club, to plant a seed to make more of soccer in Tucson. That paved the way for them to be able to offer Hi Corbett Field to Sporting Kansas City, which rounded up the New York Red Bulls for an exhibition game in 2010. “That was the birth of FC Tucson,” Schantz said.
Foster and Schantz expected maybe 3,500 people for the game, which attracted more than 10,000 and forced them to shut the gate with a long line of people not able to get in. “It sent a message to us and MLS that spring training could be a spectator event,” Foster said.
FC Tucson has four owners, who refer to themselves as managing members: Foster, an attorney, as the legal officer; Chris Keeney, the chief business officer building ticket sales and sponsorships; Pearlman, the general manager; and Schantz serving as the team’s head coach. They spent 2010 marketing Tucson as a spring training venue to MLS and the league’s teams, several of whom were sold on Kino even when they saw only baseball practice fields.
The first Desert Diamond Cup in March 2011 featured four MLS teams and the proceeds financed the first season for FC Tucson, which joined the Premier Development League the following year and was honored with Rookie Franchise of the Year accolades.
The four-team Desert Diamond Cup this year was preceded by FC Tucson Soccer Fest, which brought another six MLS teams to town. Half of the Major League Soccer teams played at Kino Sports Complex in one-month span in January and February. The Desert Diamond Cup final was telecast by NBC Sports.
Team owners see only a bright future for soccer in Tucson. Right now, FC Tucson is year-to-year with MLS spring training. “We would like to be in a multi-year deal with MLS to host pre-season games,” Foster said. “We think, given the support for soccer in our region, Tucson might be an excellent candidate market for a USL Pro franchise. We’re reviewing that.”
Pima County came up to bat quickly and decisively for FC Tucson. First, the county permanently converted one baseball field into a soccer field and temporarily converted four others for soccer in fall 2011. Those conversions became permanent after four MLS teams did their spring training here in 2012.
When talk came to a stadium dedicated to soccer last year, the Pima County Board of Supervisors moved swiftly to approve the $2.8 million project for a 1,800-seat stadium. “Pima County is willing to compete with anybody to bring sports amenities to our community,” Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias said. “We understood the need to act quickly.”
FC Tucson drove home their mission to serve the community and that landed Elias and Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez hook, line and sinker. “They learned the meaning of the word ‘partnership,’ not just with Pima County but with the community,” Valadez said.
Elias added: “They always talked to us about including youth soccer in the deal. That’s it.”
AAA baseball tanked spectacularly at Kino for 15 years, the Tucson community never accepting a stadium far on the South Side. Why should that be any different for soccer?
“We think Kino is very well located for soccer,” FC Tucson co-owner Greg Foster said. “It’s right off a freeway with very good access to the Northwest Side and Southeast and Green Valley and Sahuarita. What we’re seeing is soccer is being played all over the city. Kino really is surrounded by the soccer community.”
More than 5,000 adults play organized soccer in Tucson. Let alone thousands of children. “Soccer has a much more interactive base than baseball,” co-owner and team coach Rick Schantz said.
Plus a crowd of 2,000 is fantastic for an FC Tucson match, while 2,000 at a Tucson Padres games is a pretty empty house. The stadium should be done in November and FC Tucson expects to play its 2014 season there.
Soccer is all about crowd noise. “With the half roof, you have captured sound,” Schantz said. “One thousand people will sound like five thousand. When a youth sees a stadium, that creates excitement.”
So, what sort of soccer do you get at a FC Tucson match? Pretty damn good, the team owners insist. FC Tucson, after all, tied Sporting Kansas City this January at FC Tucson’s Tucson SoccerFest.
FC Tucson is a semi-pro team composed of college players and former professionals who have regained their amateur status. None of the players is paid at this point, but team co-owner and general manager Jonathan Pearlman insists MLS caliber soccer takes place at Kino.
“If you look at the top 11 players of an MLS team and you look at the next 11, the quality of our players would be comfortable on any MLS team,” said Pearlman, who recruits the team’s players.
The FC Tucson season is equally about Tucson community soccer league. A community soccer match will precede each FC Tucson home game. These will involve the newly established Chapman Tucson Champions League (CTCL), a series of matches that involve the major adult leagues in Tucson and Southern Arizona: Arizona Soccer League, Guanajuato AZ Soccer League, Menlo Soccer League, Tucson Metro Soccer League, Tucson Women’s Soccer League and the Tucson Adult Soccer League.
“Tucson has the potential to be a big soccer town,” said Tucson Women’s Soccer League president Doreen Koosmann. “If soccer players at every level work together, we could put Tucson on the soccer map. TWSL wants FC Tucson to succeed and we are taking every opportunity to assist them with this goal.”
At other times of the year, the Kino Sports Complex will also feature the Fort Lowell Shootout, the Far West Regional League twice a year, and the Arizona Youth Soccer Association stages state league, state cup and president’s cup matches at Kino.
“It’s a true community asset,” said FC Tucson co-owner Chris Keeney, who moved here from Houston to get in on the ground floor of a soccer emergence in Tucson after stints with the NFL Houston Texans and Major League Soccer teams D.C. United, Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew.
FC Tucson Home Schedule
Each event is a double header starting with a community soccer group game, which starts at 5:15 p.m. All FC Tucson games start at 7:30 p.m. Admission to both games is $10. All games are played at the Kino Sports Center North Grandstand
May 18: Chapman Tucson Champions League Semifinal 1
May 18: FC Tucson vs. SoCal Seahorses
June 6: CTCL Men’s Semifinal 2
June 6: FC Tucson vs. OC Blues Strikers FC
June 8: TSAFC Women vs. St. George United
June 8: FC Tucson vs. Fresno Fuego
June 15: TSAFC Women v. Utah Starzz
June 15: FC Tucson vs. Real Phoenix
June 28: TSAFC Women
June 28: FC Tucson vs. Ventura County Fusion
June 30: CTCL Men’s Final
June 30: FC Tucson vs. Ventura County Fusion
July 6: TSAFC Women v. SC Del Sol
July 6: FC Tucson vs. CTCL Men’s Winner
July 13: CTCL Coed Championship
July 13: FC Tucson vs. Los Angeles Misioneros
July 20: CTCL Over 45 Men’s Championship
July 20: FC Tucson vs. BYU Cougars