The first season of professional soccer in Southern Arizona has featured its fair share of ups and downs, according to those involved.
FC Tucson, which migrated from the semi-professional Premier Development League to the professional United Soccer League’s League One in the offseason, finds itself in the middle of the table in the 10-team organization, sitting in sixth place, as of Monday morning.
The team, which is 5-6-3 this year, has met the goals of manager Darren Sawatzky, who came to Tucson during the offseason after working as a development director in Major League Soccer, the top professional soccer league in the United States.
Sawatzky believes the squad has made huge steps in its first season of professional ball, with players and coaches learning a lot during the regular season.
“I’d say it’s exciting, and it’s a massive learning experience,” Sawatzky said. “I’ve been involved in the game for a long time as a pro player, then as a pro coach, and this is a system and a program that’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done.”
Sawatzky said that Phoenix Rising, FC Tucson’s parent club, has established a winning culture that brings in experienced players with the right mixture of talent and work ethic to succeed.
One of those players is 20-year-old midfielder Devin Vega, who was signed by Phoenix Rising in the offseason, before moving to FC Tucson midseason.
Vega’s unique skillset was on full display during FC Tucson’s latest home match against FC Toronto II, scoring a goal in the match’s 19th minute to propel the home side to a 3-1 win on Wednesday, July 3.
To Vega, that win shows what the team is capable of when everyone brings their best and keeps their eyes on the task at-hand.
“I think the team, we’ve lost a few points, but I think we’re slowly starting to get everything together,” Vega said. “And as you can see, our past performance kind of shows that everyone’s committed and everyone’s ready to start to get ready for the second half of the season.”
The rest of the schedule for the team looks promising, with seven home matches remaining between now and the end of the regular season, on Friday, Oct. 4.
Vega said FC Tucson’s players have been thrilled by the support they’ve received during home matches this year.
He thinks the team’s move from semi-pro to professional soccer will help draw more people to Kino North Stadium, where the team plays its games.
Vega’s confidence stems from the improved quality that comes from when you take out a cast of college kids and replace it with full-time, professional athletes.
“I think it’s a whole different ballgame,” Vega said. “I think last year, they were playing in the PDL, so it was guys coming in for summer league games and stuff like that. This league is great for guys coming down from the USL and using their experience to help the guys out in Tucson. I think this league prepares you for the next step, for wherever you’re going to head next.”
Sawatzky believes the team’s relationship with its parent club, which plays in the USL Championship division (the second-highest level behind the MLS), is beneficial for all involved.
“Having a USL Championship and a USL League One team combined, and having players move back and forth, it presents challenges that are new,” Sawatzky said. “They’re cool, but they’re new and challenging.”
Sawatzky, who played for the New England Revolution during the inaugural MLS season in 1996, believes the quality of play within the USL League One rank is fascinating to soccer fans of all ages.
He’s confident that fans will embrace the team’s new setting, given the faster pace of play and pulse-pounding excitement of gamedays.
“This is a true professional team, and the players are not that far removed from the Major League Soccer level,” Sawatzky said. “So, it’s different than the college kids and amateurs of the past, at the PDL level, now guys are getting paid. And I’ll tell you right now, there’s at least two or three of these guys that you’re going to see on MLS rosters sooner rather than later.”
One of those players is 23-year-old forward Jordan Jones, who came to Tucson after playing in 18 matches with the Rio Grande Valley FC of the USL Championship level in 2018.
Jones, who has two goals this season, said watching Tucson embrace professional soccer this season has been great for everyone in the organization.
The Oregon State alum believes the growth of the professional game in cities across America is great for its development at the youth and high school ranks.
He believes the team’s success will come from its relationship with the city and that the buy-in from fans this year has been amazing to watch from the pitch.
“It’s exciting. I think bringing professional soccer to a lot more cities around the U.S. and around the world is huge,” Jones said. “It’s huge for guys that maybe haven’t gotten the opportunity somewhere else or that were picked up late. I think it’s big for the community of Tucson and for the league in general.”
Sawatzky added that the open-armed embrace of the club by the city so far has been fantastic.
For Sawatzky, the city of Tucson’s embrace of FC Tucson mirrors what he saw as a player when MLS launched.
He’s confident that Tucson’s attendance can rival that of the original MLS cities, such as Boston, Seattle and Chicago. The key, according to Sawatzky, is to introduce people to the sport at its highest level, so they can get into it, even if they don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the sport immediately.
“I was one of those original guys that played the first couple of seasons in the MLS,” he said. “I was the start of that project, and the greatest thing about Tucson is that it’s just an awesome community. Tucson’s growing like crazy, but it’s a sophisticated sports town. People know sports, and they love their sports.”
Sawatzky is thrilled to lead the collective of burgeoning professionals forward in their sporting quest, with a team on the ebb in a city that’s on a similar trajectory.
“I really like working with players as they’re on their ascension, but I also love that FC Tucson’s goals are twofold,” Sawatzky said. “Obviously, we’re trying to help guys get to the highest level. But we also want to represent Tucson. So, just the opportunity to have a chance to go chase trophies at the same time that guys grow, it’s just a really cool, challenging project.”