Although Tucson lost baseball spring training, Major League Soccer spring training has flourished in Pima County.
While many games are played near the county’s sports facility at Ajo Way and Kino Boulevard, the New York City Red Bulls are practicing this year at Naranja Park in Oro Valley.
On Saturday Night, the Red Bulls hosted a friendly exhibition game with FC Tucson.
The Red Bulls prevailed 3-1 in the exhibition against FC Tucson, which is a semi-pro team from the Premier Development League. An estimated 600 fans took in the game, with most of the fans able to sit just a few feet away from the pitch. It was a great opportunity for fans to get up close and personal with the teams.
“They are just loving the talent on display here and the excitement under the lights,” said Oro Valley Councilmember Mary Snyder.
Many of the fans were young families, with a number of kids in attendance donning their youth soccer jerseys in front of the pros.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for Oro Valley and Tucson to see the highest level of soccer in the country in our back yard,” said Todd Garelick, a coach with the Tucson Soccer Academy. “Kids have a wonderful chance to see some of their favorite players in a very intimate environment, which helps grow the game. This is a special night for the community.”
With fans virtually on the sidelines, they were able to get a great feel for the level of athleticism on display. The speed of the players was apparent and you could hear the players communicating with each other, especially Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. The Sierra Vista native was quite vocal in directing his teammates.
The game was originally supposed to be played on Sunday afternoon, but a previously scheduled scrimmage against the Sacramento Republic was cancelled due to bad weather in the Sacramento area. This meant more players were available for the scrimmage in Oro Valley and both teams competed hard despite the exhibition status of the contest.
“FC Tucson gave us a really good match,” said Red Bulls Head Coach Jesse Marsch. “They fought hard, they kept it clean, they scored a good goal. It was exactly what we needed to get some guys some minutes and to have a good little test. It was a successful evening in many ways.”
It was a very close game for much of the first half. Although the Red Bulls controlled the action, keeping the ball on the FC Tucson side of the field, they were not able to capitalize until late in the half when Sal Zizzo converted on a long cross on the far post.
The second half saw more offense from both squads. Gonzalo Verón made it 2-0 with his goal, but FC Tucson countered when Chris Sanchez go to long cleared ball and chipped it over Robles’ head.
FC Tucson had a few chances to tie the game, but failed to convert. Eventually Brandon Allen got the insurance goal when he tapped in a crossing pass to make it 3-1.
Despite the three goals, the Red Bulls coach said the team could have scored more.
“There were a lot of little plays there where if we were a little bit sharper we could have scored quite a few more goals,” Marsch said. “That is what preseason is about.”
The Red Bulls have called Naranja home for the entire preseason camp and, in addition to giving local soccer fans a great evening, it is also an economic boost to Oro Valley.
Last year Sporting Kansas City and the Columbus Crew called Oro Valley home. Assistant Town Manager Chris Cornelison said the teams generated 916 room nights and $216,000 in direct spending at the Hilton El Conquistador.
Snyder said the scrimmage and the fiscal ripple from preseason soccer was “a great boon for the community.”
Final numbers on the Red Bulls’ stay in the town will not be known until after they depart.
Logan Burtch-Buus contributed to this story.