By Jeremy Beren/for The Sporting Nation
Soccer in the state of Arizona is expanding rapidly, as one team tries to climb up the ladder to Major League Soccer and another takes to the pitch for the first time this spring.
Phoenix Rising Football Club put in an official bid to bring MLS to Phoenix on Jan. 30. The club currently plays in the United Soccer League, which is the second division of the American soccer pyramid, behind only MLS.
Phoenix Rising’s new owners, which include Kona Grill CEO and president Berke Bakay and Riester Advertising CEO Tim Riester, took over the club in August. A complete rebrand soon followed, and the team once known as Arizona United Soccer Club received a new logo, new colors and new sponsors. The owners also commissioned the construction of the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex on tribal land between Loops 101 and 202 in south Scottsdale. These changes have the ownership group excited about the possibility of MLS in the Valley of the Sun.
Bakay cited several statistics that he believes give Phoenix an edge in the expansion race.
“If you compare Phoenix to the 12 cities that have applied [for MLS expansion], Phoenix has the highest current population, it has the highest projected 2030 population, it has the highest population under the age of 45 and it has the highest current Hispanic population,” Bakay said. “And it’s an incredibly important TV market, it’s the 12th-largest TV market in the United States.”
Co-owner Riester revealed that MLS encouraged Phoenix Rising to apply for expansion, and said the league has been in frequent contact with the ownership group since the bid’s submission.
“It’s obvious to me that they are taking Phoenix very seriously,” Riester said. “And I would say I’m as close to 100 percent certain that we’re eventually going to have an MLS franchise as I can be.”
Phoenix Rising’s emergence as a contender to play top-flight soccer has overshadowed the inception of FC Arizona, which will kick off for the first time a matter of weeks before Phoenix Rising’s fourth USL season begins.
FC Arizona was founded in July, one month before the Phoenix Rising takeover. The club is coached by former Premier League goalkeeper Aidan Davison and will play at John D. Riggs Stadium on the campus of Mesa Community College. FC Arizona will compete in the National Premier Soccer League, which is the fourth tier of American soccer. That means CEO and owner Scott Taylor’s club will not serve as a direct rival of Phoenix Rising.
“We are very focused on building a program the honest way, with hard work and a quality product on the field,” Taylor said.
The two clubs may possess different budgets and resources, but Riester indicated a willingness to follow and even help secure sponsors for FC Arizona in the future.
“I’m planning to go out and try to attend some of their games and support them, because I think the more opportunities for people to rise through soccer and get all the way up to our level is gonna help Arizona, and I want to see them succeed,” Riester said. “The fact that they’re going to have adults playing soccer in Mesa I think is good for the sport.”
Bakay agreed that FC Arizona’s presence will help the sport grow in Arizona, even as the two clubs’ objectives may vary.
“From my perspective, I wish everyone the best that’s trying to improve soccer in the state,” Bakay said. “That’s something that is very important for us. But from a comparison perspective, we have different budgets, different aspirations with our MLS application.”
Taylor is concentrated on preparations for FC Arizona’s first match, but he gave his thoughts on whether the MLS aspirations are realistic.
“MLS is very much a long shot for Phoenix,” Taylor said.
MLS has announced that the next two teams to join the league will be revealed later in 2017. Phoenix Rising starts the 2017 season on March 25 against Toronto FC II. FC Arizona host Real San Jose on March 4.