The game of soccer is all about making connections.
The right pass, to the right player, at the right place and time. Put all those together and the result is brilliant and poetic.
Getting a professional sports vortex like Tucson to buy into soccer—or any game, for that matter—as an economy-boosting entertainment option requires making a similar number of connections, though in a much less picturesque fashion.
Sometimes it starts with a phone call, a conversation or an email. Soon it's discovered that you, the rabid soccer fan, are not alone in this community, which has seen both minor-league baseball and major-league spring training pack up and leave, not to mention countless failed attempts at getting other pro sports teams to take root here.
You find there's plenty of interest, plenty of desire and, most important, quite a bit of willingness to take a chance on making the beautiful game a permanent fixture here.
"Soccer has always been there, under the radar," says Chris Keeney, a co-owner of pro club FC Tucson and one of a handful of people spearheading the push to make Tucson a soccer mecca. "I think people, especially in Tucson, are ready to buy into something they can call their own." Keeney is a recent transplant to Tucson, having come here from Houston, where he worked in marketing and public relations for the NFL's Houston Texans. Prior to that, he spent time in the front office of three different Major League Soccer teams, and he considers Tucson a ripe market for soccer growth.
"From an outsider's point of view, I think Tucson is highly undervalued, highly underused," he said.
Keeney is speaking purely on observation, having not experienced how Tucson has seen spring training bail to the north, and how not one but two (after this summer) minor league baseball teams have jumped ship. He also wasn't here to witness the very short-lived tenures of teams competing in minor league hockey, pro volleyball and several incarnations of pro soccer.
But all of that was before connections started getting made here. The series of conversations, messages and meetings over the past three years has led to the upcoming monthlong exhibition of pro soccer at, of all places, a facility built solely for this region's interest in baseball.
This Saturday afternoon, Jan. 26, Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium will host a "friendly" match between the national teams from Canada and Denmark. It will be the first-ever international match played in Tucson, and it kicks off a stretch of 18 matches in 29 days at the Kino Sports Complex involving national teams, MLS clubs and minor league club FC Tucson.
Known as Tucson SoccerFest, the four-week event will serve as Pima County's coming-out party as a pro soccer destination. If things go right, there's also the chance of MLS naming the Tucson area as its western hub for preseason training.
"It's not an official title, but (Tucson) is the only place being looked at," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS' executive vice president of competition. "The league is working towards establishing certain locales to be officially part of MLS. As soon as this year's events ... culminate, we will engage both Tucson and Pima County in continued discussions. We're very pleased with where the situation resides at the present."
It's a far cry from where things began: a chat between Greg Foster (a local attorney), FC Tucson head coach and co-owner Rick Schantz and Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham in 2010 about what could be done to improve the region's sports appeal.
The three self-professed footie junkies wondered whether Tucson could ever be known for soccer beyond its well-received annual youth mega-tournament, the Fort Lowell Shootout, which blanketed the city's fields last weekend.
Foster had prior experience making something from nothing, having petitioned Salpointe Catholic High School to add soccer as a varsity sport in 1981. Salpointe has since developed the most successful prep program in state history.
FC Tucson—run by the collective of Foster, Schantz, general manager Jon Pearlman and Keeney—was formed in late 2010 with hopes of playing in 2011, but Foster said there was a strong desire to do more than just have a local pro team.
As fate would have it, the Tucsonans learned that the MLS club Sporting Kansas City was planning to do some preseason training at a city park in Phoenix. Willing to take a risk, Foster said he and his cohorts floated the idea of Sporting KC playing an exhibition match in Tucson, possibly against a makeshift version of what would become FC Tucson.
The next thing they knew, Sporting KC had agreed to the match and also offered to bring along another MLS club, the New York Red Bulls—with its international star Thierry Henry. Cunningham then used his city connections to secure Hi Corbett Field. And with the addition of the Phoenix-based minor league club Arizona Sahuaro, a four-team event was suddenly on the books for March 2011.
The marquee matchup, between KC and New York, drew a sellout crowd of 10,097 to watch soccer on a field that had previously been used only for baseball. Had there been more seats, Foster said, they would have been filled.
"There was a line of fans wrapped around the stadium that couldn't get in," Foster said. "Once we realized we could do that ... MLS took notice."
Armed with the support of the Tucson City Council, thanks to a unanimous vote in June 2011, FC Tucson folks were ready to approach MLS about entering into a commitment for more preseason games in Tucson. But word then came from Cunningham that a deal was soon to be struck to turn Hi Corbett into the University of Arizona baseball team's permanent home, taking away the best available site for MLS.
Foster said he tried to hold off talking to MLS "until at least the fall" so he would have a better idea of where matches could be played, but a proactive Rodriguez flew to Tucson in summer 2011 to tour the community.
"He was very impressed (with the city), but then he said, 'I haven't seen a soccer field,'" Foster recalled. "He challenged us to make it happen in Tucson."
Rodriguez said he wasn't making demands of Tucson. "I was merely making an observation. What we seek as a league are good partners. There are plenty of opportunities for us to cut a good deal, but we need partners that are willing to grow with us, that are patient, good to work with. We feel really good about what the folks in Tucson and Pima County have been able to accomplish."
Enter the county, which, thanks to the exodus of the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks from Kino, found itself with many well-manicured but rarely used ball fields. Work needed to be done to convert the fields for soccer use, but with the county looking for ways to increase its soccer field supply, a deal was quickly struck.
"It's better to have more (field) options," Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said. "We need to have a number of entertainment options, and those interests need to be diverse. With the (MLS success), it became kind of an awakening. People basically said, well maybe this is something we ought to stress to try and get visitors to Tucson—to replace the economic loss from baseball."
The north fields of Kino Sports Complex were temporarily converted to soccer in 2011, enabling FC Tucson and the county to go back to MLS with a plan for more preseason games in 2012.
The results were far better than anyone could have imagined: Nine MLS teams committed to play games here, including four in what would eventually be called the Desert Diamond Cup. Among the DDC participants were the Los Angeles Galaxy and their bigger-than-humanity star, David Beckham, meaning Tucson would play host to two of the world's most famous athletes in the same week. Tiger Woods was at the Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana.
The Desert Diamond Cup matches were held at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, which has now become known as much for football and soccer events as for the baseball games it was built for. Four doubleheaders drew a combined 30,000 fans, enabling FC Tucson to write "a very large check to the county" last year as part of a revenue-sharing agreement, Foster said.
The MLS preseason success served as a springboard for FC Tucson's first season in the Premier Development League, a lower rung on U.S. Soccer's ladder of leagues. FC Tucson finished second in its division and reached the playoffs, and in December was named the league's Rookie Franchise of the Year.
By then FC Tucson had secured another roster of MLS teams to play preseason friendlies in 2013 on the north fields, which the Pima County Board of Supervisors had unanimously approved converting to permanent soccer use. The lineup for the 2013 Desert Diamond Cup was set as well, with Henry and the Red Bulls returning for the third straight year.
"The local team is demonstrating their own growth," Rodriguez, the MLS executive, said of FC Tucson. "Our preseason event is nice, but I think the growth in (soccer interest in) the region is demonstrable. That is a secondary responsibility of our league."
Seeing how well Tucson had received pro soccer, the promotional arm of MLS, Soccer United Marketing, managed to line up an international friendly between Canada and Denmark to be played in Kino Stadium. The game serves as a warm-up for Denmark before it hosts Mexico in Glendale on Jan. 30, part of both of those clubs' training for 2014 World Cup qualifying.
While Tucson SoccerFest will showcase some of the best talent to be found in this country, those working behind the scenes say they're not satisfied with just putting on games. Partnerships continue to form to provide other forms of soccer entertainment, such as viewing parties at the Playground Bar & Lounge for international competitions, screenings of soccer-themed films at the Fox Theatre and other off-the-field events. It's developing almost in the way San Diego's Comic-Con morphed from a small convention for comic book fans into a must-attend happening for the who's who of the fanboy culture.
"I think what drives soccer here is the local soccer culture," Foster said. "This isn't going to work if we impose some sort of corporate structure on the town. Soccer is happening now in America. We're only going to succeed if there's a connection to the community."
Of course, SoccerFest also coincides with the Tucson area's busiest time of the year for big-ticket entertainment options. The gem and mineral shows have already begun to invade us, with tents popping up in parking lots all over downtown and parts of the Kino Sports Complex. And both the rodeo and the Accenture match play take place during the tail end of the Desert Diamond Cup.
Thousands of tourists will be in town for those events, which makes it the best time to start up another option, Huckelberry said.
"Our most successful venue out there at the Kino Sports Complex is the gem show, and having soccer fans concurrently there is beneficial to everyone," he said.
Foster said the competition from other events provides an "interesting tension," though it also enabled the Desert Diamond Cup to secure television coverage of its title game, thanks to the presence of an NBC TV crew already here for the match play. Cable station NBC Sports is scheduled to air the championship game.
Once Tucson SoccerFest is completed, MLS and FC Tucson hope to iron out a long-term deal to keep preseason competition in town. Such a deal will likely be contingent on the continued improvement and enhancement of Kino's north fields. Beyond just revamping them for permanent soccer use, a de facto stadium—with seating for up to 3,000 as well as a press box—is scheduled to be finished by October, while FC Tucson's home field this season will have bleacher seating for between 1,000 and 1,500 fans.
"We're going to continue to make those investments that are necessary in order to improve the north complex as a training complex," Huckelberry said. "It helps satisfy the diverse recreational needs for the community."
If the Tucson area continues to support soccer, Rodriguez sees no reason why MLS cannot continue to train here. The proximity to northern Mexico is a plus, he said, as is an abundance of young people who have grown up alongside MLS, which was formed as part of the deal to get the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. It begins its 18th season in March.
"Because the league is now 18 years old, there is an entire population of children that has grown up with MLS," Rodriguez said. "For them it is very much on par with the NBA and Major League Baseball. We know we're not on par, economically, with those leagues. But my son, he's 12 years old. He doesn't know life without MLS."
Current interest aside, it's still unknown whether the work being done now will be enough to reverse Tucson's poor reputation for supporting anything sports-related that doesn't have "University of Arizona" attached to it.
The Tucson Padres are set to move to El Paso in 2014, making them the second minor league baseball team to skip town. Other failures include a pair of minor league hockey teams—including one, the Tucson Scorch, that folded as its players were getting on a bus to head to their first game—and even a few soccer teams.
But Keaton Koch, president of FC Tucson's support group, the Cactus Pricks, believes this soccer team will be different because of both the backing of MLS and the overall makeup of a soccer season.
"It's just going to take time, like everything," said Koch, a Pima Community College student who heads the team's 80-member fan gang. They wear matching shirts and scarves, sit together and do chants during any and all pro soccer matches in Tucson. "Just in our third year MLS has labeled Tucson as the western hub. Imagine after 10 years what is going to happen here?
"And I think the biggest key is the (length of) the season," he said. "You don't have 30 or 40 or 60 games. Only two or three times a month do you need to come to a game. That's why soccer will succeed in Tucson."
FC Tucson SoccerFest schedule
All matches at Kino Memorial Stadium, 2500 East Ajo Way
Saturday, Jan. 26 at 1 p.m.: Canada vs. Denmark with the Danish Performance Team presenting a half-time show.
Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 11 a.m.: Colorado Rapids vs. Portland Timbers
Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m.: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Houston Dynamo
Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m: FC Tucson vs. Sporting Kansas City
Thursday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.: Houston Dynamo vs. Colorado Rapids
Friday, Feb. 1 at 6 p.m.: Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers
Saturday, Feb. 2 at 11 a.m.: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids
Saturday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m.: Houston Dynamo vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 11 a.m.: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Portland Timbers
Friday, Feb. 8 at 11 a.m.: FC Tucson vs. Portland Timbers
The Desert Diamond Cup
Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m.: New England Revolution vs. Sounders FC
Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.: New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake
Saturday, Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Saturday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m.: New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution
Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 5 p.m.: Real Salt Lake vs. New England Revolution
Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m.: Seattle Sounders FC vs. New York Red Bulls
Saturday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m.: The third-place team vs. the fourth-place team
Saturday, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.: The first-place team vs. the second-place team
Ticket information available at FCTucson.com.
VelociPrints: On the Pitch
An art show at Borderlands Brewery (119 E. Toole Ave.) featuring soccer-themed prints starting at $40. For more info, visit facebook.com/events/412875445440520. Saturday, Feb. 9 at 5 p.m.
Soka Afrika Screening
A screening of a film about two young African soccer players dreaming of the opportunity to play the game at the highest level. Fox Tucson Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Sunday, Feb. 10, at 5 p.m.