Updated May 25, 2014 - 9:34 am
‘We are United:' A look inside Arizona's professional soccer team
"Glory, glory, Ari-ZONA!" A chant rattles the desert air inside the Peoria Sports Complex, just northwest of the heart of Phoenix. About 3,000 fans focus on the field, spring training home to Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. There's not a baseball in sight.
Professional soccer has a long and rocky past in Arizona. In the last 20 years, the state has seen franchises come and go, many lasting less than a year. From the Sandsharks, an indoor soccer team founded in the mid-1990s, to the recently-failed Phoenix Wolves franchise, the soccer-loving crowd in the Valley has bounced from team to team with little knowledge if the squad of the moment would exist in a few short months.
The Wolves, the latest Valley pro team to go defunct, went out in a blaze of shame after being tossed out of the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division following allegations of bylaw violations, unpaid wages and a brewing player revolt, none of which helped the team's future in Phoenix, one of the most fickle sports markets in the nation.
Home to the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Coyotes, Arizona Rattlers, Phoenix Mercury and Arizona State University, the Valley is not running short on a steady supply of professional-level sporting events. The Phoenix metro area appears to be an owner's paradise at first glance -- desirable weather, affordable living leading to more disposable income, high levels of tourism.
The Valley's best asset, its massive transplant population, would seem to be the icing on the proverbial cake, but that's not so. Most metro-area teams, aside from the Cardinals, struggle with attendance despite the area's four million-plus population. Many residents complain about drive time (a minimum of 30 minutes for fans in Phoenix's wealthier eastern suburbs to reach University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the Cardinals) as the reason they don't attend games, while others remain loyal to childhood teams.
Phoenix's first franchise, the Suns, was founded in the 1960s. The Cardinals didn't arrive until the late 1980s, eventually followed by the Rattlers, Coyotes and Diamondbacks, respectively. In that time, the population increased by millions. With such booming growth, many Valley teams faced the daunting task of luring sports fans to new teams and stadiums.
While every franchise has enjoyed spurts of great success (the city's sole "Big Four" -- football, basketball, baseball, hockey -- championship came in 2001 courtesy of the Diamondbacks), smaller sports struggled, soccer included.
On paper, Phoenix seems like a prime destination for professional soccer. With several youth teams faring well against national competition and a sizable Hispanic population -- traditionally filled with strong soccer supporters -- the city seems ripe for a team. However, the large influx of Big Four fans accompanied by poor results and leadership in Arizona's soccer history has led to the sport's marginalization in recent years.
To fans, the loss of the Wolves appeared to be the final dying wheeze of professional soccer amongst the cacti. Only a truly passionate group of fans would miss it, save for several others. Kyle Eng, the new owner of Arizona United, the state's latest incarnate of pro soccer, was one of them.
I first learned of Eng and, more specifically, United, after my higher-ups approached me. A lifelong soccer fan, they felt I would be the perfect person to write this up.
I met Eng the same night I saw United play for the first time. Standing nearly 6-foot, he radiates energy and confidence. An advertising executive who moonlights as a soccer owner, Eng doesn't sit much during matches. Or ever, from what I can tell. Though he lacks an extensive soccer background, he's undeniably passionate.
"My soccer career ended as a fourth-grader when I got hit in the face with a ball," he said, laughing while we spoke on the phone.
Eng is viewed, rightfully so, as the current hero for soccer fanatics in the Valley. When the Wolves folded, it was he who stepped in and saved the sport.
"When USL Pro approached me about investing in the team and ultimately purchasing it…they were going to pull professional soccer out of Phoenix, out of Arizona. As a successful ad person and sports fan, I thought it was right thing to do for our community to save the team."
Not too bad for a guy who was beaned in the head years ago and called it quits. Business opportunities aside, Eng recognized the need for professional soccer in the Phoenician community, particularly one that boasts nearly 80 youth soccer clubs.
"A lot of kids play soccer here and then they have to go other places to play professionally, other places to develop their game, and I think we look at this as a huge opportunity to allow these kids to stay home, to allow these kids to be fans of the game."
One of the lingering questions surrounding Eng's club is the professional certification. USL doesn't command the immediate recognition of MLS, but Eng left no doubt: His boys are pros.
"We have a 24-man roster. All of them are professionals, some coming right out of college, some played in MLS last year, some played in Europe last year, some played in South America last year."
USL Pro essentially serves as an unaffiliated Triple-A team to MLS. United's roster currently boasts several players loaned from the top flight who are looking to hone their game before returning to the national limelight.
The soccer community in America is tightly-woven, much like the team scarves proudly displayed and worn by fans to declare their allegiance. As a sport on the fringes of true American sporting cognizance, supporters tend to band together and set aside traditional club rivalries to toast when their respective teams hammer home a "ripper," or hard shot.
Many Valley fans, bereft of other options, have chosen to follow clubs both near and far. As a Manchester United fan myself, I know the difficulties and loneliness of waking in the wee hours just to catch a glimpse of my Red Devils playing thousands of miles away.
With so many forced options and an unstable future, it's no small chore to attract a consistent fan base for Arizona United's games, something Eng is acutely aware of.
"We're really focused on growing the game, putting a great product on the field, having players and a team that our fans are proud to cheer for and then having a great experience at the game."
Focus is one thing, true support another. Eng's club has drawn an average of 3,000 fans per game in the team's first home games with little notice for fans. An admirable feat to be sure, given the Phoenix sports market.
But is it enough? Surely, as all Valley sports fans know, interest in teams wanes and surges with success on the field, court or ice. A bad year can cripple a team, two can spell death. Given the recent absolute failure of the Wolves, momentum was stacked against Eng and his Arizona United. Where does a man like him turn? In the Big Four, sponsors are the easy call, the simple payday to get cash in the coffers. Soccer works differently.
"When I bought the team, the first call I made was to the chair of LFR. These guys are our most important clients."
Walking into the Draft House, across from the Peoria Sports Complex, I'm told to ask for "Goyo." He's the unofficial head of the Arizona United's supporters group, La Furia Roja, commonly referred to as "LFR."
"This is our city," said Goyo, whose real name is Gary. "This is our club. This is it for me."
Gary, a Mesa, Ariz. native, works in microelectronics. He lived in England for a time as a young man, fell in love with the game but lost interest. He rediscovered soccer during the 2010 World Cup and has never looked back.
He now helps coordinate game-day functions for the group and readily denies he's in charge. It's much more communal than first glance, he said.
"Everybody here participates. It takes everybody to get where we are."
And there's a lot to do: Calling the bar, letting members know where to be and when, ensuring the drum line (yes, there's a drum line) is supplied and staffed. A "capo," the person who leads the chants, has to be found.
"What I do is just set up a system so everybody can get to where they want to be," said Gary.
Where they want to be is section 115, just behind the west goal and the designated official United Supporters Section. Specialty tickets and a hardy set of eardrums are required to hang with LFR. From the time they're in the stadium until past the final whistle, they sing, chant and goad United's opponents.
"I love the atmosphere," said John, a Scottish transplant now residing in Scottsdale. "We hang out with the LFR guys and it's just a great bunch of people."
A welcoming bunch, to be sure. Within the first few minutes of my arrival, I'm offered plenty of greetings, handshakes and the equivalent of a small tidal wave of beer (I declined). The group is ready to support their team, but there is a sense of revelry, like a man that has stared death in the eye and lived to tell the tale.
"In February, we were scared and wondering if we were going to have anything this season and then Kyle Eng and Arrowhead Marketing come in and save us, so I'm just happy to be out here watching a professional team," said Bryan, an LFR member.
Thus the intangible relationship between United and LFR comes together. A fan base desperate for a team meets ownership desperate for a fan base. It was a match made in Peoria that is blossoming into a true following.
"Without the support of LFR, we couldn't be successful," said Eng.
"Our home games have been really supportive."
It was a sunny day when I caught up with United's head coach, Michael Dellorusso. The mercury was creeping toward the low 100s, far warmer than the balmy springtime of his native Maryland.
Like a majority of United's roster, Coach Dellorusso took a roundabout path to the Valley. After a four-year stint in the pros, he returned to the University of Maryland, his alma mater, as an assistant coach in 2010. He helped lead the Terrapins to four consecutive Sweet Sixteen and two Final Four appearances. His last game at Maryland was a 2-1 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA championship. Dellorusso was settling in nicely until his phone rang.
"Kyle called me and offered me the job on the spot," he said, grinning.
The jump from college to professional coaching is not a small one, but it suits Dellorusso. While at Maryland, he had to concern himself with grades and players getting to class. As a pro, the parenting responsibility is off his shoulders.
"It's not holding their hands through things. It's expecting them to be a little bit more independent and take things on their own because if they don't get the job done at the end of the day, it's on them."
His role as an overseer lessening, Dellorusso is now free to follow his passion, much like his players.
"I get to concentrate on what I like to do -- the soccer part of it, the tactical part of it."
That focus is key. Dellorusso has been tasked to take United to the USL playoffs in the team's first season, a tall order when teams like Orlando City (a future MLS franchise) and the reserve team for LA Galaxy are among the competition.
"We're making pretty big strides," he said.
At the close of my first United soccer game -- a heartbreaking 1-0 loss decided by a freak own goal -- the Peoria Sports Complex begins to empty. The players thank the fans and sign a few autographs before heading off to shower. Fans mingle for a bit before making their way out into the Valley. LFR heads back to the bar.
I'm wondering what's next. Not for my night, but for United.
"We will be starting a PDL team," Eng tells me. "Those are made up, primarily, of college players that still have amateur eligibility."
The future Premier Development League team, a Double-A to USL's Triple-A, is expected to be operational next year. Eng plans to station the team somewhere in central Phoenix.
Plans are also in place to connect with youth soccer clubs statewide. United will give tickets to different clubs for each of its 14 total home games. Some players will serve as ball boys or girls while the parents enjoy the game and a cold Four Peaks brew (not complimentary, unfortunately).
"We're going to be the professional team aligned with all the clubs," said Eng.
All this begs the obvious question: Will Arizona United soon follow some of its players on to the MLS stage?
"That's so far down the road," said Eng, adding he and the club are focused on making the playoffs this season and putting a good team on the field. He wants to draw fans to not only the game, but his team.
"That's why we changed the name from Phoenix to Arizona because we're Arizona's professional soccer team."
Carter Nacke, Web Content Editor - KTAR.com/ArizonaSports.com