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Valley teams to clash in U.S. Open Cup for right to face Phoenix Rising

Mo Salama is one of the Sporting AZ players that made the switch in the offseason, moving from FC Arizona. (Photo courtesy Grace Stufkosky)

PHOENIX — Ten years ago, the state of soccer in Arizona appeared to be at a standstill.

Fast forward to 2018 and four teams, at varying levels of soccer’s competitive hierarchy, reside in the state. All have aspirations to grow the sport in Arizona.

A competition on May 9 could help the cause.

FC Arizona will host Sporting AZ at John D. Riggs Stadium in Mesa for more than just East Valley bragging rights. The teams will play each other in the U.S. Open Cup, a single-elimination tournament run by U.S. Soccer to give lower division teams the opportunity to play against higher division teams. The winner of the game moves on to play second division team Phoenix Rising.

This is the first time FC Arizona and Sporting AZ will meet, but organizers expect a sellout.

“It’s a great possibility created by most of the players and the coach from the other team that we’re going to face,” said Maxi Viera, coach of FC Arizona. “They know what we play and we know what they play, so I’m expecting a derby.”

Not only do these teams play just several miles away from each other, but several players on the Sporting AZ roster were on the FC Arizona roster just last year.

FC Arizona is an amateur soccer team from Mesa that plays in the National Premier Soccer League, which identifies as a fourth-tier league.

Sporting AZ is also an amateur team that plays its home games in Chandler. It competes in the United Premier Soccer League, which is considered equivalent to FC Arizona’s NPSL.

“The players know each other,” Viera said. “Some of those guys, they want to prove that they did the right thing by moving somewhere else, and some of the players that are here want to show that they did the right thing by staying. Most of them don’t have anymore contact, they don’t see each other and they don’t talk on the phone.”

Aaron Mendez played with FC Arizona last season and decided to stay with the team this year as well.

Although he may not have spoken with his old teammates yet about this upcoming match, he’s excited for what this game means for everybody.

“For me and a couple of the guys that stayed, it’ll be a little different since we were with them all last season,” he said. “It’s going to be great because we would like to play them. It’s good for not only both teams, but for Arizona. Just to have soccer around and just to see how competitive we are.”

Mo Salama is one of the Sporting AZ players that made the switch in the offseason. He played with FC Arizona last year.

“It’s a good opportunity to play my old squad,” he said. “I have a little bit of mixed feelings because FC Arizona is a great community and we had amazing fans, but at the end of the day we just got to go out and there and play the game.”

Although FC Arizona is the home team, Salama doesn’t think it will be a difference-maker in the outcome of the game.

“Personally, I like that stadium,” he said. “I think it wouldn’t really matter that they have home field advantage because me as well as some of the other guys have played at that field.”

Not only is this game an exciting matchup for many homegrown soccer players from Arizona, but the winner of the game also moves on to play Phoenix Rising, the second division professional soccer team in Arizona.

Phoenix Rising is off to a hot start in the United Soccer League. The team has earned 11 points and is the most notable soccer team in the state with the most talented player pool.

Sporting AZ general manager Tim Marchisotto is happy to see all the hard work his organization has put in is finally coming to fruition.

“We’ve put a lot of time and effort on this tournament.” he said. “Our goal this year was to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup, which we did. To put ourselves in a position to play against someone like a Phoenix Rising, which is a second division team, I think it’s huge. Obviously we have to get through FC Arizona first, which won’t be easy but that’s why you play the game.”

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