By Tim Grainey
Phoenix FC Wolves, a new United Soccer League’s Pro Division franchise which is launching in 2013, announced this week that they will be playing their home matches at Arizona State University’s Soccer Stadium. Phoenix FC will invest a six figure sum to expand the stadium’s capacity, which currently seats approximately 1,000 for ASU’s women’s soccer team, to approximately 4,000 to 5,000. Thanks to the Wolves’ efforts, the stadium which currently has seating only along the west sideline, will soon have stands along the east sideline and a large stand on the north end zone, along with a few rows on the south sideline. ASU now would be able to bid on such events like the Women’s College Cup finals, which was held this year at 6,000-seat Torreon Stadium at the University of San Diego.
The partnership with ASU is a sign that the new franchise is serious about pulling from various communities in the Valley of the Sun, both ethnically and logistically. Greater Phoenix spreads over 100 miles diagonally from Queen Creek in the Southeast to Sun City West in the Northwest and includes a Hispanic population exceeding 25%. Phoenix has long been a market with potential, but seemingly has always missed on opportunities for professional soccer teams to thrive and have not regularly attracted the Hispanic audience, many of whom grew up with the sport. Mexican League clubs draw well for exhibition games and powerhouse Pachuca explored placing a USL franchise in the Phoenix area a few years ago. The market is always highly skeptical about any professional soccer efforts however. Phoenix FC’s stadium announcement in conjunction with Arizona State shows a dynamic approach for bringing together this somewhat fragmented soccer community for three reasons:
1) Credibility—Phoenix FC’s paring with Arizona State University’s top caliber facilities and athletic department infrastructure provides more publicity, awareness and cross-marketing opportunities than if they were developing fields at a youth soccer facility like Reach 11 in North Phoenix—which has hosted U.S. soccer regional and national tournaments—or at a baseball stadium.
2) Location—Arizona State University’s main campus in Tempe is located 10 minutes from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport and twenty minutes from Downtown Phoenix. Though Tempe is located in the East Valley, it is still centrally located, only minutes from downtown Scottsdale and quite accessible by freeway or on the light rail system. The University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, where the U.S. Women’s National Team played Ireland recently, is on the far west side of the Valley, as are other spring training baseball stadiums in Glendale, Goodyear, Peoria and Surprise, which makes it harder for East Valley (Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, etc.) residents to attend
3) Soccer Specific Location--Phoenix has several baseball stadiums, some of which are used primarily for Major League Baseball’s spring training but have many available dates through the rest of the year. Phoenix FC’s technical staff, led by Rui Felipe Bento--a former professional player in his native Portugal who operates Benfica Soccer Academy locally--and coach Dave Robertson--a native of Scotland who played professionally with top side Aberdeen FC--felt that it was important to play in a soccer stadium. Phoenix FC’s CEO Tim Thomas said that: “ASU had the best soccer field in the valley.”
Steve Patterson, Arizona State University’s Vice President for Athletics, said at a press conference on December 11, 2012: “We wanted to continue to open the campus to different people who otherwise don’t necessarily come here. It helps the coach [ASU Women’s Head Coach Kevin Boyd] be able to have student athletes that we have, see other soccer players play here regularly. Hopefully we can grow the game and the number of attendees, and allow some of the revenues to flow through the university and helps its programs move forward. The additional seating makes for a better facility as we move forward and helps all of our student athletes.”
Team CEO Tim Thomas explained the team’s reasoning for working with ASU: “The idea is to start out with a relatively small 5,000 seat stadium and look at future development with ASU and our [soccer] academies and how we can introduce children to ASU as well as pro soccer. At 5,000 we can have MLS [Major League Soccer] friendlies and internationals but could expand to 8,000-10,000 [in the future].” Thomas said that the team will have a beer garden for their games, which is not an option for college events.
In 2013, Phoenix FC should have up to 20 home games, including league games, at least one U.S Open Cup game, and exhibition matches, likely involving MLS teams. In the past few years, Arizona has become a spring training site for a number of MLS sides. FC Tucson, a team in the United Soccer League’s amateur Premier Development League (PDL), has nine teams committed to play matches and train in Tucson early next year, including: Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution, the New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. Tucson lost all of its three Major League Baseball Spring Training teams to suburban Phoenix locations a few years ago and has actively sought to become a spring training location for soccer. Real Salt Lake and others have trained in Casa Grande (midway between Phoenix and Tucson), where RSL’s regional youth academy is located. A few MLS teams have trained in Phoenix as well, including the two time reigning Major League Soccer Champions Los Angeles Galaxy, who practiced at ASU’s Soccer Stadium. Patterson indicated that 70,000 seat Sun Devil Stadium, which is located a short walk across campus from ASU Soccer Stadium, could be used for major exhibitions, which has been done on occasion in the past.
Coach Robertson said that the team has made six signings to date, including forward Darren Mackie, who has played for Scottish side Aberdeen from 1998 to 2012. Other signings include USL veterans: defender Devon Grousis (Charlotte Eagles) and Aaron King, (Carolina Railhawks/Charleston Battery). The Wolves are committed to fielding a number of local players and have already signed two: Reid Schmitt of Phoenix Desert Vista High School--who played at Midwestern State University in Texas and with FC Tucson in the USL’s PDL last summer--and Brad Keller of Scottsdale--who played at Horizon High School and at the University of Washington. The side has added Brazilian flair in midfield import Diego Faria.
Thomas indicated that they are very interested in having a women’s team play in USL’s W-League, possibly in 2014 or 2015 at the latest, calling women’s soccer the “next big wave in soccer.”
Teams participating in the USL Pro Division in 2012 included:
VSI Tampa is another expansion franchise joining in 2013.
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to Soccer365. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released earlier this month. Get your copy today.
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