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Partnership between Phoenix Rising, local program could benefit both

Jordan Stewart (left) and Jason Johnson (right) train ahead of Phoenix Rising’s U.S. Open Cup match against the San Francisco Deltas. (Photo by John Arlia/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Phoenix Rising FC doesn’t only have its sights on bringing its name forward in the soccer world, but it is also hopes to bring the rest of Arizona with it.

The club recently partnered with Scottsdale Soccer Blackhawks to create a new multi-layered soccer pyramid in the state. The result is the Phoenix Rising FC Youth Club, a renaming of Scottsdale Soccer Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks brand, which had been around since 1981, produced numerous collegiate soccer players as well as several national championship teams in 2017 and 2018. It has teams in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Prescott and works with about 3,500 children.

Rising Chief Operating Officer Bobby Dulle said the youth club’s history and its soccer growth efforts in the community drew the professional outfit.

“It was a logical next step for us as an organization as we continue to grow and try to have soccer at all levels,” Dulle said. “From the highest level in professional to the lowest level in recreational and everything between. We’re trying to build a true soccer pyramid in the state of Arizona.”

The youth club’s Director of Coaching and Executive Director Chris Brown said the biggest change that will come is a more direct path to professional soccer.

That pathway starts with recreational teams for new and progressing players as young as 4 years old, leading to competitive and Elite Club National League teams.

The youth club will also offer a College Advisory Program for those interested in playing in college as well as a pathway to FC Tucson in both the Premier Development League and Women’s Premier Soccer League.

Phoenix Rising also plans to create a United Soccer League Division III team in Tucson in 2019. The USL will create the separate league that same year and Dulle said this new Tucson team aligned with its “soccer pyramid” goal.

There is no official plan, Dulle said, to potentially elevate these teams in the future if the Rising were to win its Major League Soccer bid. He did say “it would be logical” for some of those teams to move up a level to “continue to create that pathway” to the highest level possible.

While it’s only been about two months since the announcement came, Brown said the club has seen some positive feedback on social media and from its local community.

Still, aside from some added interest, Brown said not much has changed since the announcement.

“It’s certainly a period of reflection, of looking to see what assets do we have,” he said. “I think then we’re going to look to see how we can capitalize on those assets.”

With no particular plans in mind, that self-assessment could lead to “additions and improvements” to how the club develops its youth, Brown said.

This isn’t the first professional partnership in the Valley in recent months. Real Salt Lake from Utah recently created Real Salt Lake Arizona, pairing with the combined Sereno and Legacy soccer clubs.

This change comes after Real Salt Lake Arizona spent six years in Casa Grande paired with the Grand Sports Academy.

Randy Karg, commissioner of District I North in the Arizona Youth Soccer Association, said these types of partnerships are starting to change the landscape of youth soccer, leaving it unclear what effect Scottsdale Soccer Blackhawks’ new joint effort will leave in the state.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect the other clubs because a lot of it is proximity,” he said. “Some people choose certain clubs because it’s closer to their homes and some choose because they’re affiliated with a professional team.”

Despite that uncertainty, Brown said he is excited for the future because the club is encouraging its youth to get exposed to professional soccer to mirror what they see. He said this will provide a better opportunity to do so.

As for Rising, Dulle said growing the team’s brand is one benefit he sees from the new partnership but he also sees a chance to grow the sport among the youth.

“To be able to extend our brand beyond just our marketing into the everyday lives of these kids, it’s pretty exciting that you get to see your badge on their shirt,” Dulle said.

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