A few months ago you couldn't go far in this city without seeing the FC Tucson team crest.
The downward-pointing arrowhead with the red-and-white honeycomb motif was everywhere: Billboards, restaurants, parking lots. If you didn't know better, you'd think the University of Arizona had suddenly overhauled its block-A logo in some weird attempt to counter Arizona State's unprovoked Sparky redesign.
From late January until the end of February, Tucson was SoccerTown USA. And hometown club FC Tucson was at the forefront of this footie revolution, doing all the legwork to ensure another successful showing of Major League Soccer preseason competition and all but guarantee a long-term affiliation with MLS in Southern Arizona, smack dab in the middle of Tucson's busiest tourist season.
Expect Tucson to get the official designation soon as MLS' western training hub, with possibly nine clubs spending several weeks here each January and February.
All of this is great from the occasional big-ticket-event standpoint, just like the hokey-but-still-adored rodeo and the ultra-haughty, check-out-those-lime-checkered-pants Match Play golf tourney in Marana.
But the people behind FC Tucson want more than to just be event promoters. They want Tucson to be a year-round soccer mecca, with fans interested not just in brand-name pros making pit stops here but also in all facets of the game at a local level.
Whether all of that effort will translate into a sustained interest in Tucson's lone permanent soccer fixture though, remains to be seen.
FC Tucson began its second season of competition last Sunday, opening play in the Premier Development League with a 1-1 draw against LA Misioneros FC in San Bernardino, Calif. Its home slate began Tuesday, May 14, at its temporary Kino Sports Complex field against the Phoenix FC Wolves in a match that's part of the 100-year-old U.S. Open Cup tournament.
The first PDL home match is Saturday, May 18, against the Southern California Seahorses. Yes, Seahorses.
The inaugural FC Tucson season was about as successful as anyone could have hoped for. The club went 9-3-4 in the regular season and reached the playoffs, earning PDL Rookie Franchise of the Year honors.
The fan interest might have seemed small—FC Tucson averaged just 709 fans during its home games, according to the PDL. But that ranked 12th among 65 teams that played in 2012 and was almost 50 percent above the league average of 485 fans per match.
"That's about all (the room) we had," said Greg Foster, one of FC Tucson's four co-owners. "Last year we put together our field about three weeks before play and we played to capacity."
This year, more bleachers have been brought in to accommodate 1,200-plus fans.
Say what you will about Pima County spending money to convert the five baseball fields on the north side of the Kino Sports Complex into six soccer fields, but the commitment being made to soccer in this community is something to be proud of. As is the conversion of one of those old diamonds into a 2,000-seat soccer stadium, complete with a shaded overhang. Additional bleachers could be added to make it a 3,000-seat arena.
When complete (in time for the 2014 season) it should give FC Tucson a leg up, facility-wise, on the rest of the PDL, which is the equivalent of Double-A baseball in the U.S. Soccer competition rungs.
"We're in a special place with this," co-owner Chris Keeney said of the stadium.
To put things into perspective, Sunday's game was played on Cal State-San Bernardino's field, while other 2013 road matches will be on college pitches or, in the case of a trip to Fresno, Calif., in the outfield of the stadium where the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team plays.
Phoenix FC Wolves, an expansion club in the USL Pro (one level up) Division, plays on the field normally reserved for ASU women's soccer.
Having its own stadium is a big deal for FC Tucson because it isn't a co-tenant, it's the tenant, and thus it can make the facility its own and turn it into a local soccer destination. The same goes for the ancillary fields around it. Club officials expect games to be played there (via MLS training, the Desert Diamond Cup preseason pro tournament, visits from Mexican pro teams and various youth and amateur competitions) on roughly 25 to 30 weekends a year.
"We're trying to create a soccer culture," said Keeney, who has previously worked with MLS and NFL organizations on developing a devoted following.
That's a hard sell at the PDL level, as the players are all amateurs and all but four on each roster must be college age which by U.S. Soccer standards is younger than 23. The FC Tucson roster this year consists of players from schools such as Gonzaga, New Mexico, Virginia Tech and California-Riverside, and the PDL is essentially like the Cape Cod League is for college baseball players: a place to work on their skills and get noticed in advance of going pro.
And while affiliations with top-tier clubs (such as the Tucson Padres being the triple-A team for the big-league San Diego Padres) not only create a talent pipeline but also provide added fan interest, the PDL level doesn't have that. For FC Tucson players to go up to a USL Pro or North American Soccer League (NASL) team, or even all the way to MLS, for even just a one-shot appearance, they would have to turn pro and end their college careers.
It also means that a pro on the downside of his career couldn't join FC Tucson for a farewell tour because he'd have to renounce his professional status, meaning he'd get nothing more than some meals, some gear and maybe a hotel room for his troubles.
So with name recognition and top-prospect viewing out of the equation, the only way FC Tucson can breed a strong local following (other than from the most obsessive, rabid, I'll-watch-anyone-play fans, which seems to be more present in soccer than in any other sport) is to cultivate interest in soccer itself, not just in its club. It's why every FC Tucson home game in 2013 will be a doubleheader, with the opening tilt pitting teams from various adult leagues in the region battling it out in what has been dubbed the Chapman Tucson Champions League.
One of the adult men's teams will eventually get to play FC Tucson. It's another way the club is trying to connect with the community and bill itself as Tucson's only sports franchise (after the T-Pads move to El Paso next year), and one that cares about being part of Tucson for the long haul.
Who knows? Maybe someday it could become a pro club. FC Tucson officials aren't shy about dreaming big and one day moving up to USL Pro where they envision the team as a farm club for an MLS team, possibly a regional one like LA Galaxy, Chivas USA or Real Salt Lake. Heck, maybe even for Phoenix if that new club can find a way to move up.
To do that, though, Tucson will need to embrace this organization and give it a reason to keep wanting to give back, rather than give it an excuse to make some money and move on.