Soccer history in Arizona: Phoenix FC takes practice pitch for the first time

11 02 2013

When the Seattle Sounders practiced for the first time as an MLS franchise in 2009, I was there. A little more than three years later, who could have foreseen that I would be standing in a cold rain Monday morning watching USL Pro expansion franchise Phoenix FC practice for the first time in their existence?

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For a time it took me back to my Seattle days, the 20 players jogging and doing fitness drills on grass near the Arizona State football practice facility in the rain.  Lots of communication during 7-on-7.  A goal was scored and someone shouted “First goal in Phoenix FC history!”

Day 1 featured a morning practice and an afternoon session and on Valentine’s Day, the club is scheduled for a 5 p.m. scrimmage at Reach 11 Sports Complex.  The 20 included a number of trialists but featured former Scottish Premier League striker Darren Mackie, the club’s first signing, and former MLS goalkeeper Andrew Weber, who played for the Seattle Sounders last season. Weber and his brother Elliot, a defender, are with the team.

I’m three years into my move to Arizona and we now have a pro soccer team to follow.  There’s much to be worked out logistically — this isn’t the seemingly seamless transition from USL First Division to MLS that the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps made. But everything feels more right than uneasy. It’s all so new still, but training camp has opened and the first game of the season is March 30 at Arizona State’s soccer stadium.

By the time that day arrives, Phoenix FC will have its 26-man active and travel roster set.  The seating from the recently-completed Waste Management Open golf tournament will have been transported and installed to make the ASU soccer stadium bigger.

And Arizona now has two active pro soccer clubs. FC Tucson thrives to the south and Phoenix FC hopes to draw crowds of its own.

Mackie figures to be the team captain. His teammates seemed somewhat awed to be on the pitch with a guy with major European experience. Mackie seems to understand that he is there to mentor players as much as be a scorer. Here he is talking about his first practice, only days removed since he and his family arrived from Scotland.

Robertson said he’d like to have as close to 26 players as he can going into the season, and perhaps a bit more he can select from if needed.

“I do want us to play attacking soccer,” Robertson said. “The formation will go from game to game depending on the opponents we play.”

“I just want them to play attractive soccer so that people will come and watch,” Robertson added.

Defender Jose Ramos, like other teammates, is thrilled to play for a team in his hometown.

“For the young kids, too, that are barely starting… this is going to be a good opportunity for them, too,” Ramos said.

The Webers were excited to be back on the same pitch together for the first time in years. Andrew said that he’s glad to see an actual team in the Phoenix area after so much talk in years past about the formation of other teams that didn’t pan out.

And poor Humberto Soriano. The goalkeeper came out of the locker room to change his shoes and got stuck being interviewed by myself, Odeen Domingo of the Arizona Republic and Ed Cole of ProstoPreps.com. He was happy to be on the team, but freezing and shivering in the cold. After a couple of minutes we stopped so he could go inside and get warm.

People out here don’t do rain well. Nevertheless, it was an historic day for soccer in Arizona and I was there to document it.

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Celebrating Cascadia with videos

26 06 2012

The loyalty of Sounders FC fans is a beautiful thing. They turn out game after game, season after season, the love for their boys undying.

Yet I wonder how many of them are content with early-round playoff exits. With U.S. Open Cups — nice, but not the ultimate prize. With frustrating losses every now and then to teams the club should beat.

I’m long removed from the day-to-day news and observing of the club. Three playoff appearances in the first three years of existence is impressive — a lot of teams would take that in a heartbeat. But I sense that Sounders fans expect more, demand more. And they should.

I do think the Sounders beat themselves, aside from a defense that has not played well of late. That Fredy Montero was sent off in the Portland game was confounding. Your best striker pushing off  – even if the Timbers’ David Horst flopped — and costing himself and his team with a suspension, at a time when the Sounders need to get back on the winning track. The Sounders have to do a better job of managing their emotions through this recent winless streak.

There were some needless, senseless fouls from both teams, Portland and Seattle. But my sense is that the Timbers, with less talent, were fine with turning the game into a physical tussle. The Sounders aren’t that kind of team overall, and really never have been.

Having said all that, Sounders fans, you still have a playoff team. The organization has made some fantastic calls with player personnel. There’s a ton of depth and Adrian Hanauer, Chris Henderson and Sigi Schmid reload with fresh talent each year. Some of that talent is guys who might not have gotten their chance as rookies or younger players — they have had to learn to be patient and wait their turn.

It’s a testament to the club that they are able to stockpile developing players. Seattle is an ultimate soccer destination for any professional player, it’s hard to leave once you get there. Ask Mike Fucito, Lamar Neagle, Sebastien Le Toux and James Riley.

Enough opinion. Let’s watch some videos.

Here’s a rainy night in Portland (Timbers-Whitecaps) last month.

Here is the Southsiders supporters group in song in Portland. What a season so far for Vancouver, congrats to them.

Speaking of Vancouver, these are SHARP.

Whitecaps third kits (new)

 

 





Soccer night in downtown Phoenix

24 02 2012

It looks like this Reto del Sol match, as it is called, will become an annual thing in the Phoenix area, be it at Chase Field or University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and will involve the New York Red Bulls as long as they keep coming down to Arizona for preseason training.

That’s a good thing. With Major League Soccer teams’ presence prevalent here year after year, playing a match in a big stadium for a crowd of thousands is good for everybody. I have to applaud the Red Bulls for being part of it and credit the Mexican Soccer Federation for agreeing to send a team up from Mexico to be an opponent.

Everyone wins here, save perhaps organizers of the game, who probably lost money this year with a smaller crowd than last year’s Reto del Sol. The Red Bulls get an extra game for their top players to mesh and build off of heading into the MLS season. Pumas UNAM, last night’s other participant, gets to increase its profile and exposure and pay homage to its fans in the U.S., even if they had to fly in from Mexico City for the match and head back out right after.

Mexican teams rule here in Phoenix. The broadcast TV ratings are always higher for Primera Division matches on Spanish-language TV stations than even U.S. national team matches aired on the same day on ESPN. People with close ties to Mexico are loyal to their Mexican clubs. Pumas. Chivas. America. Cruz Azul. Atlas, etc. Those jerseys were spotted in the crowd of 14,597 at a baseball stadium, Chase Field, for Thursday’s match.

The Red Bulls had much less audible support, even though theirs was the only merchandise being sold t the game. That said, defender Rafael Marquez is a celebrity in Mexico and his presence had some Mexican fans wearing his Red Bulls kit.

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Last interview with Lamar Neagle as a Sounder

18 02 2012

Who’s to say if he’ll ever come back, but the trade of local guy Lamar Neagle to the Montreal Impact Friday signaled the end of his time with Seattle Sounders FC. At least for the foreseeable future.

On the one hand, I’m happy for Neagle. Awesome guy. Worked extremely hard to become an impact (pardon the play on words) player for the Sounders last year. Had a paid internship in the real world WHILE a developmental player for the Sounders in 2009. Deserving of all success that comes his way.

On the other hand, my gut feeling tells me Seattle paid too high a price for forward Eddie Johnson’s rights. Giving up two talents with the potential of Neagle and Mike Fucito couldn’t have been easy. They both have a lot of upside, while Johnson will have to prove himself worthy of the fans’ loyalty.

I got a chance to catch up with Neagle a couple of weeks ago when the Sounders were in Arizona for training. Here’s highlights of our mostly light-hearted conversation:

On why he kept No. 27 and didn’t take a different jersey number:

“That first year, they (family members) bought jerseys. I was going to change it, yeah. I ordered like 60 or something like that jerseys.”

Photo courtesy of Rick Morrison

On from where he was as a developmental to where he is now:

“It’s been pretty crazy the last couple of years. Been away, came back and actually started playing. Couldn’t ask for more really.”

What precipitated all of that?

“Just getting comfortable. Just realizing I could play. I think going down to Charleston was good for me because when I first came here, the pace was too fast… once I went to Charleston and had success there, it was kind of a step in between. It made it a lot easier. It built my confidence and made me more comfortable on the field. Coming in and knowing all the guys already makes it a lot easier as well.” Read the rest of this entry »





Video: DC United vs. Sporting Kansas City

17 02 2012

It’s rare to be so close to the action, so I took some video of about 100 seconds of the preseason match between Sporting KC and DCU last week here in Arizona. Enjoy.

 





Cascadia soccer and more – looking back on Arizona training

7 02 2012

Shouts out to all the people back in the Northwest, happy to maintain that soccer connection with you. I’ve been doing a lot of work for MLSSoccer.com of late covering preseason training. It’s all on the site.

Living in Arizona sometimes has its benefits as a soccer journalist and fan. This state gets annual MLS preseason training in Phoenix, Tucson and the biggest town between the two, Casa Grande.

I’ve been extremely busy with work but I have managed to see three matches — New England-FC Tucson, Real Salt Lake intrasquad and Sounders-Whitecaps, with a DC United-Sporting Kansas City matchup planned for this Saturday.

Since I’m more familiar with the Sounders and Whitecaps, I’ll say this about Vancouver: It stockpiled some guys that on paper can be major contributors, but that remains to seen. The ‘Caps need some center midfield help and are giving a long look at two new defenders, as that facet of the game was a big problem in 2011.

From Monday’s starting lineup, I was surprised not to see Jordan Harvey, who I think is a solid choice, in that group at left back, but that could change.

Also strange to see Davide Chiumiento not working with the first team. But that shows the depth the Whitecaps appear to have at the offensive positions. Still, they’ve got to find someone to distribute the ball and connect passes and it may or may not be John Thorrington. The ‘Caps have lot of attack-minded forward types — Seba Le Toux (great to catch up with him BTW), Atiba Harris, Camilo Sanvezzo, Omar Salgado — but seem to be lacking in center mid.

Honestly I thought Vancouver’s starting group in Monday’s scrimmage played better overall than Seattle’s. The Sounders missed some passes, didn’t possess the ball well for long stretches and Vancouver looked more active and attacking. The Sounders did pick it up with their first group eventually, as Adam Johansson served a ball well to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in the 44th minute that Hurtado just missed hitting with his head toward the goal.

In the 37th minute, Roger Levesque got a head on a ball that just missed wide.

The Sounders clearly have a ton of depth, though, as seen in how the second group started the second 45 minutes of the match even though coach Sigi Schmid thought their effort and energy faded as the half progressed.

Schmid said the Whitecaps were motivated to play hard from the outset for their new coach, Martin Rennie, and that the Sounders didn’t have a scouting report, they just went out and played against whomever was on the field.

Schmid is going to have some hard decisions to make as to whom to keep on the roster.

Cordell Cato, a 19-year-old forward-wing from Trinidad, has impressed in the two times I’ve seen him play for Seattle. David Estrada and Servando Carrasco could push for more playing time after good showings Monday.

Johansson looks like a more than suitable new right back for the Sounders, very good at chasing the ball and distributing from the back to the attackers.

The officiating was bad. Those guys let the game become too physical with all of the hard tackles and fouls. At least the intensity is there on the part of both teams early in their preseasons.

Let’s move on to some visuals… stay with me and click to the next page.

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Sounders FC practice report, A.M. session Feb. 4

4 02 2012

Another perfect “winter” day in central Arizona, and my annual reunion with Seattle Sounders FC Saturday morning and afternoon in Casa Grande.

It’s nice that after two years away from these guys, there are still some familiar faces and guys who remember me and who were kind enough to take the time to say hello or catch up. Coaches Sigi Schmid, Tom Dutra, Brian Schmetzer and David Tenney, staff guys Matt Gaschk, Huy Nguyen, Mike Ferris and Grant Clark and of course, the players — Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Lamar Neagle, Jeff Parke, Brad Evans, Mike Fucito, Steve Zakuani and Roger Levesque.

I also spoke with new GK Michael Gspurning and midfielder Mauro Rosales for the first time.

But enough with the sentimental stuff. The morning session was interesting in that there were two 11-man teams of reserves on one field — Orange v. Blue — and a third group of guys who figure to be the starters and regular rotation players when the Sounders’ season starts in early March with a CONCACAF Champions league match.

That third group included Evans, Fucito, Alonso, Neagle, Montero, Rosales, Patrick Ianni, Alvaro “Flaco” Fernandez, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and defenders Adam Johansson and Marc Burch. Parke was given a day off from practicing but did some light running.

Sounders regulars doing some running at Feb. 4 morning practice (photo by Jose Romero)

The Orange squad featured Zakuani at left midfield, Mike Seamon at center mid, Servando Carrasco at holding mid and Levesque at right wing. Leo Gonzalez played left back and the forwards were David Estrada and Babayele Sodade.

Asst. coach Ezra Hendrickson gives halftime talk to Orange team (photo by Jose M. Romero)

The Blue team was led by Sammy Ochoa as the lone forward and Zach Scott at right back. Trialists Harlinton Gutierres and Ever Alvarado played center and left back, and trialist Andrew Vanzie got a long look at center mid. He played well in the two 20-minute halves.

The Orange side got a goal when trialist Wes Feighner caught up to a long ball and controlled and crossed nicely to Sodade, who finished the play putting the ball past goalkeeper Andrew Weber, who couldn’t do much with it.

Blue team midfielder Cordell Cato impressed in the scrimmage, but easily the moment of the day came when Zakuani, coming back from that horrific injury last season, looked strong running hard to catch up to a ball and then dribbled around his defender for a clear shot.

The play happened right before the end of the session. It was, for a flash, the Zakuani that Sounders fans have become accustomed to, flying down the wing and getting a shot off. This one went a little too high.

“It was another chance for us to look at some of the players that are competing for spots on the team, and also get some good fitness work in for the first-team guys,” Schmid said.

Schmid said the coaches planned to play Zakuani for the first 20 minutes, but he asked to play the second half, too.

“I think he ran out of gas at about the 30-minute mark,” Schmid said. “The last 10 he just sort of stood up front and became a forward who really didn’t chase back much. But he had the opportunity at the end. You saw the old Zakuani stepover, push it inside and just hit it over the top.

“With each day he gets a little more confidence. There’s still no timeline on the whole thing (recovery),” Schmid added. “Every day it gets a little better.”








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