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Romero: Phoenix is ready to be a soccer town - or not

By Jose Romero - Jun 29, 2016

PHOENIX -- Copa America Centenario is over, and it's still kind of unbelievable that this commmunity got three of the games. 

Three very entertaining matches, as it turned out. Mexico-Uruguay drew more than 60,000 fans for what was a "home" game for El Tri and a disputed 3-1 win. Ecuador-Peru ended up being a 2-2 match between the top two teams in their group, with Brazil getting knocked out, and not even 12,000 people attended, the lowest crowd count of any Copa America match. 

And finally, Saturday's third-place game featuring the U.S. and Colombia. The Americans fought hard and got close numerous times, only to fall short 1-0 before just over 29,000 people. 

Given the cities and venues for the tournament -- big markets with previous soccer success like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Boston area, the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle -- Phoenix didn't seem to fit. But organizers saw fit to give the Valley of the Sun three games. 

Nine of the 10 host market have Major League Soccer teams. Phoenix was the only execption. Does this signal the coming of MLS to Arizona? We address that and more in the following arguments for and against Phoenix being ready to step up its game as a soccer town. 

Phoenix is ready because....

1. The area has hosted major soccer events in the past, including huge crowds for Mexico friendlies and Gold Cup matches.

2. The area has hosted a Super Bowl, the BCS national championship game, an MLB All-Star Game and next year, the Final Four, in the past five years. Big-time events come here, and that doesn't look like it will change anytime soon. 

3. This is a major city that supports an NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA franchise. Plus a Pac-12 school. Soccer would have to compete, but given the large support for Liga MX soccer generated out of Phoenix, with the right direction top-tier soccer can survive. 

4. University of Phoenix Stadium is ready, if the Cardinals ever want to share it with another tenant. The grass playing surface is top notch. 

Phoenix is not ready because...

1. The third-division club, Arizona United, has to play in the searing heat of the summer and it's a tough sell to get more than a couple of thousand fans to attend matches at a spring training baseball stadium. 

2. An MLS team would need its own stadium with a retractable roof for May-October matches, and who will pay for that? There's no relying on the Cardinals to share their home. 

3. The Copa America matches drew well for the Mexico match and the third-place game, but it was a shame that so few attended Ecuador-Peru. Both teams made the quarterfinals yet played to a small crowd. It could have been a mistake to play the game in Phoenix where there isn't a large Ecudaorean or Peruvian community, but people didn't understand that they could have seen high-quality South American soccer. That showed this community isn't completely ready to buy into a team at this point. 

4. Someone has to find a way to tap into the Latino fan base. Failure to do that, and make it the highest priority, is bad business. 

Phoenix might as well get in the long line behind other far more ready places like Sacramento, St. Louis, even Cincinnati. In the meantime, soccer fans here will just have to be grateful for and satisfied with what games they do get. Rejoice in the fact that a first-class faclity exists here to be able to host matches, and count the blessings that Copa America Centenario came here. 

In all honesty it was a very pleasant surprise that Phoenix even received matches. Plenty of other towns could have made a case, such as Denver or Dallas-Fort Worth. The low attendance at Ecuador-Peru could hurt Phoenix in the future, but as long as Mexico competes, it's a sure money-maker for organizers.   

 

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