MLS Expansion Profile: Phoenix

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From Last Word on Soccer, by Roy Emanuel

Major League Soccer continues to change seemingly each and every day, with the latest expansion announcement pushing twelve cities to the forefront of having a team join the league. One of the most intriguing and potentially successful candidates comes from Phoenix in the form of USL side Phoenix Rising FC.

MLS Expansion Profile: Phoenix

Formerly Arizona United SC, a new ownership group has brought excitement and plans for a soccer-specific stadium to the Valley. Perhaps not talked about as often as some of the other cities on the latest list of expansion choices, Phoenix has brought quite a bit to the table in a short period of time.

Ownership Group & Stadium Plan

Acquiring the squad last year, the young Arizona franchise’s new ownership group focused on changing the past and setting up a bright future. Headed up by Kona Grill President and CEO Berke Bakay, the rebrand was about more than just a new logo and name.

Professional soccer has struggled to gain a hold in the Phoenix area and the potential is within the city to create a fantastic organization.

As the 12th-largest media market in the United States, the city boasts teams in all four of the country’s major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). One of the issues that held back previous incarnations of the USL squad was the situation surrounding their home field.

Previously playing at a baseball stadium in Peoria, ownership knew that any chance at MLS would be tied to developing a future plan. The new complex will be in a more ideal location on the border of Tempe and Scottsdale, and will hold between 5,000 and 6,000 spectators. Adding to that number down the line will likely be contingent with the jump to MLS.

Not to be outdone by Los Angeles Football Club, Phoenix Rising have also benefitted from celebrity ownership recently as well. Recording artists Diplo and Pete Wentz are minority owners, as is MLB pitcher Brandon McCarthy.

Current Soccer Landscape

The demand and popularity of the sport in Arizona is an aspect that greatly supports Phoenix Rising’s MLS bid.

The club has partnered with the Arizona Youth Soccer Association (AYSA), one of the largest affiliates of the United States Youth Soccer Association. AYSA has close to 50,000 registered players and is an important component of the local community overall.

At the college level, the University of Arizona, Arizona State and Grand Canyon University all enjoy strong soccer programs. Arizona also features clubs in other leagues besides USL, with the NPSL’s FC Arizona and the PDL’s FC Tucson.

The international stage brings about great passion from the Valley as well, with three matches of the 2016 Copa America Centenario attracting a total of over 100,000 fans at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

Other Contributing Factors

Former San Jose Earthquakes and Los Angeles Galaxy manager Frank Yallop currently leads Phoenix Rising FC, giving the club excellent insight on what would be necessary to make the move to MLS and succeed. The difficulties for the franchise truly lie in the attendance numbers leading up to their fourth season in USL.

Attendance last year averaged under 1,500 per game (1,470), with the highest totals only barely passing 3,000. Part of that had to do with previous ownership, and even more had to do with the stadium location.

The new grounds will help, but the team’s performances on the field need to keep fans coming back. The franchise has yet to make the play-offs in their three USL seasons.

The roster is still coming together in many respects, but contains talent in striker Chris Cortez and former Crawley Town winger Luke Rooney.

With the new campaign only a little over a month away, the stadium is still being completed. The club has stated that it will be ready for their home opener on March 25th.
With competitors like FC Cincinnati and Indy Eleven bringing big attendance numbers already in USL and NASL respectively, Phoenix Rising FC will need to count on their fan base getting behind them in a big way in 2017.

Overall chances

Phoenix Rising’s bid on its own will grab attention from Major League Soccer, but other cities will do the same. Cincinnati’s attendance numbers and the now NFL-less markets of San Diego and St. Louis all have the capability to be featured in the latest expansion.

Phoenix Rising FC have a strong chance and, with significant support within their new stadium this coming season, could bring MLS to the desert in the near future.

Previous MLS Expansion Profile Articles

St. Louis
Tampa/St. Petersburg