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?
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.
Former Real Salt Lake and FC Tucson (PDL) player Donny Toia is also signed to Phoenix FC and practiced Monday. Several signees (six or seven, Robertson said) have yet report to training but are expected to do so once travel and visa issues are worked out.
“It was good tempo and the most prudent thing for me is that all the boys have come in fit,” Robertson said. “It’s a good sign. It shows a hunger. They’re eager.”