Sounders, soccer blooming in desert

The Cactus League of Major League Baseball has deserted Tucson, Ariz., but a Cactus League of Major League Soccer may have begun blooming in its place.

The Seattle Sounders are part of that this preseason, as they played one so-called Desert Friendly in Tucson last week and today will play the first of four games in the Desert Diamond Cup.

“I think it’s good if it becomes a destination point where fans know they can go,” coach Sigi Schmid said. … “You’re really starting to establish that, and I think that’s great because (it’s) an opportunity for fans to go some place — maybe into a warmer climate — and it gives them something fun to do. I know if I were a fan, I’d enjoy it.”

Desert Diamond Cup play kicks off at 4 p.m. today with Seattle meeting the New England Revolution at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium — which was known as Tucson Electric Park when it was the Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox. The second game of the doubleheader will match Real Salt Lake against New York.

The clubs will continue their round-robin competition Saturday, when the Sounders meet RSL, and Feb. 20, when the Sounders meet the Red Bulls. Cup play concludes Feb. 23 with the championship and third-place games.

Meanwhile, the Sounders also have arranged a match against Veracruz, which has been added to the list of Desert Friendlies, a series of matches that this year features six MLS clubs, three international clubs and FC Tucson.

The latter is a USL Premier Development League club owned by a group of Arizona soccer fans who created all of this from their decision two years ago to bring a couple of MLS teams to Tucson for a friendly.

“There was just overwhelming support,” said Rick Schantz, coach and co-managing partner of FC Tucson. “We had 12,000 in a stadium that held about 12,500. That was kind of the birth of FC Tucson. We used the proceeds from that event to buy a PDL franchise. The following year we said, ‘Look, we think we’ve got something special.’”

The group met with county officials about their dream of creating a world-class soccer facility over the baseball fields that were deserted when the last of Tucson’s Cactus League teams packed up to join the others in and around Phoenix.

Last season, some of those diamonds were converted into pitches, and people began seeing the potential of Tucson becoming the league’s western answer to the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando, Fla.

“Everybody was excited. They wanted to come back,” Schantz said. “Then this year we said, well let’s call the Sounders and see if they want to get out of the rain.”

Seattle accepted, choosing Tucson as the place to spend two of its final three weeks before the March 2 start of the regular season.

“The most important thing for us now is just to really put the pieces of the team together, to work now on our team shape defensively, to work on our offensive cohesion and understanding, to get the pieces of the puzzle on the field together,” Schmid said. “Who are we going to play up front next to Eddie (Johnson) right now in the short term? Who are we going to play in the back right now next to (Jhon Kennedy Hurtado)?

“Those are some of the immediate questions that we’ve got to answer.”

Around that serious business, FC Tucson has hung a month-long soccer festival, including not only the Desert Diamond Cup and friendlies, but a downtown art show and the “Kicking &Screening Soccer Film Festival.”

And still, bigger plans shine on the horizon.

“Our future dreams would be to have 13 or 14 world-class soccer pitches and a fully dedicated stadium; maybe for our franchise to be at the USL-Pro level; and to have teams come down for an entire preseason, just like a Cactus League,” Schantz said.

“That’s kind of what we envision: making maybe a small table and having a normal little preseason. But also in November — when there are teams that don’t make the playoffs and are still training, looking for matches for some of their reserves — we wouldn’t mind being a location, because November in Tucson is pretty spectacular as well.”

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