Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Arizona’s hopes of landing a Major League Soccer franchise may ride on the fortunes of the newly-minted Phoenix FC Wolves.

Like many die-hard Valley soccer fans, Tim Thomas wants a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in Phoenix. Since debuting in 1993, MLS – conceived as North America’s answer to the European premier leagues – has grown by leaps and bounds, outdrawing the NHL and NBA in some markets and expanding from 10 to 19 teams.

Meanwhile, Phoenix – the nation’s biggest city without an MLS franchise – has weathered a dizzying array of ill-fated soccer startups like the Phoenix Hearts, Arizona Cotton, Arizona Sandsharks and other lower-division outfits that fell by the wayside.

Thomas didn’t like what he saw. So next spring, the real estate developer will unveil the Phoenix FC Wolves, the newest addition to the USL PRO league and the best indication yet that Phoenix may someday have a seat at the MLS table. “I call it my five-year plan,” says Thomas, who grew up in Seattle but has lived in the Valley for about 20 years. “I want to build that foundation to go to MLS, but we understand that takes time.”

Cracking the MLS lineup can be tough. The league has a strong preference for smaller, soccer-specific stadiums and a proven track record of fan support. The Valley has questionable credentials in both areas, and faces an additional challenge: Because MLS season runs through the summer, league officials have indicated that any games played here would likely need to be indoors, raising stadium-building costs.

phm1212 pfvn2 mdEnter the FC Wolves, who will function as the latest beta-test for pro soccer in Arizona. Owned and operated by BDR Sports, a group of Phoenix-based investors led by Thomas, the team expects to begin play in the spring of 2013 as the 12th team in USL PRO, a division III league that sits under MLS and North American Soccer League (NASL) in the United States Soccer Federation hierarchy. The team is still negotiating a playing site, though Thomas believes it will be in the Southeast Valley. Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium are in the running as Thomas seeks a venue small enough to ensure a rousing fan experience.

 
Scotland’s Aberdeen Football Club striker Darren Mackie signed a one-year contract with the club, but the rest of the players will be chosen when tryouts conclude in December, with four or five still unnamed locals in the running.
With strong attendance and a well-run operation, the Wolves could prompt MLS to consider Phoenix. Thomas is already cultivating the Valley for such a scenario, scouting East Valley locations to house a preseason training campus for existing MLS clubs. He’s also explored the possibility of using renovated Sun Devil Stadium as the venue for a future MLS franchise. Phoenix FC has an extensive youth system of about 9,000 kids, and the club is negotiating to host scrimmages – “friendlies,” in soccer parlance – with European and MLS clubs, all with the goal of increasing revenue while establishing a deep soccer base.

Thomas and soccer fans understand the Valley’s challenges. “This is a very fickle market,” says Micah Black, co-director of the local MLS support group, La Furia Roja 1881. “There are soccer fans here, but it’s the casual fan who comes for the novelty that we need to convince.”

If they can’t, Thomas will make do. “If we just end up being a USL team, we’re fine with that,” he says. “There are a lot of other ways we can grow soccer in Arizona.”

Q & A
PHOENIX magazine caught up with Major League Soccer President Mark Abbott to gauge the possibility of Phoenix landing a franchise.

PM
: Is MLS actively pursuing expansion? If so, are there specific markets it is considering?

Abbott
: We are very focused on having our 20th team be a second team in the New York metropolitan area. As you know, we have been very vocal about our efforts to establish that team in Queens.

PM:
Is Phoenix a viable option?

Abbott
: While there are no active conversations going on, it’s obviously a market that has a long history with soccer. We couldn’t rule out Phoenix being a market that could house an MLS team.

PM: Does the birth of a USL PRO team impact Phoenix’s chances in any way?

Abbott: People should support the USL team if they’re soccer fans, but it’s not really directly related to whether an MLS team is coming or not. We’ve had teams from other divisions join MLS (Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle and Portland) in the past, but we’ve also had teams that were not.

 

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