Clinched: FC Tucson win vs. Abq. ensures top spot in division
Supersub Rookwood scores game-winner; team earns Golden Rattler trophy
The largest crowd ever to pack Kino North Stadium watched as FC Tucson beat Albuquerque Sol FC 1–0 on Friday night.
Albuquerque’s stingy defense has only let in a little more than a goal a game, and that acumen was on full display in the first half when FC Tucson’s attack had trouble registering a shot of goal as Sol players seemed to break up every play and send FC Tucson forwards into dribbling uselessly on the wings.
Two set plays, free kicks just outside of the box, became FC Tucson’s best chance to break through the defense, but in both cases, Ricardo Velazco couldn’t find the net. A later chance, set up by a run from Odaine Sinclair, gave Velazco a close shot at goal. Velazco’s chance was frustrated as Sol keeper Victor Rodriguez smothered the shot. In all, Rodriguez made four saves in the half.
Vance Rookwood came on at the half for Dan Antoniuk. Rookwood added a healthy dose of speed and accuracy to the Tucson attack. Rookwood found the back of the net in the 69th minute after an FC Tucson corner kick caromed around the box. It was Rookwood’s third goal for the team, all coming when he joined the match as a substitute.
Albuquerque was far from done in by the goal. Jacob Gandarilla, a defender from Southern Methodist University, took a shot from just inside the box that an over stretched Billy Thompson was forced to save with his foot.
That 75th minute effort proved to be the best chance for the visitors, despite a burst of possession in the final few minutes of the match.
The win means that FC Tucson will own the Golden Rattler, a trophy conceived by the two teams when Albuquerque joined the league. Tucson’s two wins and a tie in their contests with the Sol this year gave Tucson possession of the coiled rattlesnake trophy.
Thanks to a surprising result in Provo, Utah, FC Tucson will also be assured of first place in the Premier Development League’s Mountain Division. BYU Cougars ended their match on Saturday night with the LA Misioneros with a 2–2 draw, putting first place out of reach for the team despite having two league matches left in the season.
As it stands now, those same Misioneros would be FC Tucson’s opening match in the playoffs. However, five out of six teams in the Misioneros’ Southwest Division are still in contention for the playoffs.
FC Tucson has one remaining league match against RC Foxes on Saturday, July 12 at Kino North Stadium.
Look out playoffs, here we come
Who is happy about making the playoffs? Ricardo Velazco is.
“It means the world,” he said while signing autographs. “It means a lot to us but to the fans it means more. It’s something Tucson can be proud of.”
This is the second time that FC Tucson, only in the league for three years, has made the playoffs. This is the first time they will end the season at the top of their division.
2,983 spectators were at the match, filling, for the first time, the bleachers on the on the north, east and south ends of the field.
“It was thrilling,” said Velazco. “When we came out we had an extra boost because the fans were so loud.”
“I never imagined that here in Tucson,” he continued. “I hope one day to play in front of bigger crowds, but to have this in Tucson is amazing.”
Thrilling and amazing as it was, coach Rick Schantz wondered if the big crowd might have made the team a bit more tentative at the beginning of the match.
“I thought we weren’t very clinical in the final third. We were taking an extra touch,” he said after the match. “I think the crowd and the atmosphere made our guys a little tense.”
The largest-ever crowd for an FC Tucson match was back in 2011 when 10,097 fans packed Hi Corbett Field as the local boys took on the Arizona Sahuaros. It is likely that many of them showed up to see Rafa Márquez play for the New York Red Bulls in the match immediately afterward, however.
Since joining PDL in 2012, the biggest crowd FC Tucson ever played in front of was 4,361 at Fresno’s Chukchansi Park on May 5, 2012. That match was a 2–1 loss to the Fresno Fuego, with Donny Toia scoring Tucson’s goal.
The previous largest crowd at Kino North Stadium was set last November when FC Tucson played against Major League Soccer’s Chivas USA. 2,414 fans saw Sadam Ali score the winning goal against the Goats.
FC Tucson clinching first place in their division brings up another tantalizing possibility for next year. The PDL’s U.S.-based division leaders will all qualify for next year’s U.S. Open Cup.
FC Tucson qualified for last year’s Open Cup and accomplished what was probably the best achievement for a local sports team in 2013: they beat two professional teams and held their own against a third, Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.
The run gave the team national exposure, but the schedule of matches early in the season made it tough for the team. Two weeks of away matches, midweek Open Cup matches in Texas followed by weekend matches in California, gave the team little time for training at a time when they were still trying to build chemistry for their league run.
Schantz has already been thinking about how to put a team together that can thrive under that pressure.
“We did a really good job of bringing in experienced players, guys that are out of college that we can bring in early enough to train,” he said. “We’ll try to get as many of those guys back as we can. We’ll retool guys with pro experience that are a little more mature, because that’s what you need at the Open Cup.”
The big question is also depth, a problem for the team in the first couple of games this year that would be amplified when the team could play as many as three games in a week, a cup match plus a possible two weekend league games, during their Open Cup run.
“We learned and all these teams in our division that are just starting are learning that 15 guys isn’t getting it done, you are going to need 25 or 28,” he said. “I’m glad we started the season with 30 because we only have 19 now.”