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A trip to FC Arizona reveals a raw and very Phoenix brand of soccer

Team is making playoff noise in their first year

Friday night, FC Arizona’s announcer at Mesa Community College’s John D. Riggs Stadium told the crowd that the venue was hosting Phoenix’s first soccer playoff match.

It wasn’t entirely true. The Arizona Sahuaros made the playoffs on a number of occasions, and even won a championship as recently as 2003. The surprisingly large crowd knew who he was, as the kids say, subtweeting: the much hyped (and twice renamed) but often unsuccessful pro team that plays a 15-minute freeway drive away.

FC Arizona has earned their place in the National Premier Soccer League playoffs after an undefeated season, outscoring opponents 47-3. They scored four or more goals in seven matches. Their opponent on Friday night, San Diego-based club Albion SC, can’t claim a record that good (four losses), but finished off their regular season with a 11 - 0 obliteration of Corinthians USA.

FC Arizona’s NPSL is on the same level as Premier Development League teams like FC Tucson: semi-pro or amateur depending on your definition.

Despite that, the team puts on a few of the trappings of a professional team. Banners around the field on Friday night said “pro soccer.” A few of the players, like David Paul and goalkeeper Andrew Weber, have been on professional squads. Rampant the Lion, the team’s mascot whose name is a heraldic joke about the team logo, wandered the stadium. Ticket prices ($12) were competitive with the low end of what a fan would pay to see the pros play for Phoenix Rising FC. There was a small clutch of organized supporters playing drums and chanting. It was a smaller group than LFR or the Cactus Pricks in Tucson, but the spirit was there.

There were cheerleaders. It’s a dubious distinction, but hey, does Phoenix Rising have them? No.

On the field, it would be hard to argue that the soccer looked much like even the lower-division professional game offered by paycheck cashing boys at Rising. It looked good at first, with Arizona pressing early. Dom Papa settled a ball for David Alton who scored for his team in the fourth minute. Mo Salama extended the lead only seven minutes later with a header.

Things started to break down a bit for Arizona as the half wore on. In minute 20, Albion’s Frankie Sanfilippo, a former member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, scored off of a corner kick. Arizona’s Cesar Mexia scored a header before the end of the half to give his team the two-goal lead again.

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The second half became a battle between the two teams. The often sloppy and direct play generated chances for both teams, and the referee struggled to tamp down the emotions on the field. Things came to a head in the 80th minute. The referee blew the whistle to stop play while an injured Albion player was on the ground near the midfield line. Mexia continued to dribble the ball up field. An angry Albion goalkeeper, Mario Miranda, charged at Mexia and put him in a headlock. Both benches cleared.

After the dust settled, Miranda and Mexia were given red cards. Alejandro Aguilar, a forward who had already been subbed out of the match, was also ejected for leaving the bench.

As messy as the game was, it was enough to put Arizona through to the next round of the playoffs. Their next opponent is still to be determined.

For the love of the game

Like FC Arizona, Albion sells themselves as a pro team; the word “pro” is part of their full moniker. Even so, the play of the two sides was often of the “kick the ball upfield and hope something happens” variety. The chaotic end to the match was as much the fault of a less-than professional referee that lost control of the game as it was hot-headed amateur, albeit very good amateur, players.

So, if Omar Bravo and Didier Drogba are a short ride away and available for not that much more money, what is the attraction?

There’s something to be said for a lack of glitz. As professional a presentation as the team wanted to make, in a lot of ways it was less slick than even an FC Tucson match. There was no booming music, no sponsored half-time promotions and certainly no big name celebrity owners making appearances. The game might have been a mess at times, but at least no one was trying to gussy it up. Going to the game is about, well, seeing the game.

Secondly, this team is Phoenix’s team in a way that will likely never be possible for Phoenix Rising. The team touts itself as a showcase for local talent. The game preview posted on their website included the fact that 12 of their players are Arizona natives. If you read that preview, it seems like the fact that Andrew Weber won an MLS Cup is just as important as the fact he attended McClintock High School.

It might be hard for them to compete with the glamour, although still minor league glamour, that is offered by Phoenix Rising, but FC Arizona doesn’t have to and isn’t going to try to. With all the money and pretense in the sport these days, it’s good to see the game still be the game.

Ted Prezelski writes about all things soccer, fútbol and piłka nożna for TucsonSentinel.com and at the blog How Flair is Punished (mindingthe.net).

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FC Arizona

FC Arizona's David Alton slides to celebrate a goal against Albion SC