‘We are United:’ A look inside Arizona’s professional soccer team
“Glory, glory, Ari-ZONA!” A chant rattles the desert air inside the Peoria Sports Complex, just northwest of the heart of Phoenix. About 3,000 fans focus on the field, spring training home to Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. There’s not a baseball in sight.
Professional soccer has a long and rocky past in Arizona. In the last 20 years, the state has seen franchises come and go, many lasting less than a year. From the Sandsharks, an indoor soccer team founded in the mid-1990s, to the recently-failed Phoenix Wolves franchise, the soccer-loving crowd in the Valley has bounced from team to team with little knowledge if the squad of the moment would exist in a few short months.
The Wolves, the latest Valley pro team to go defunct, went out in a blaze of shame after being tossed out of the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division following allegations of bylaw violations, unpaid wages and a brewing player revolt, none of which helped the team’s future in Phoenix, one of the most fickle sports markets in the nation.
Home to the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Coyotes, Arizona Rattlers, Phoenix Mercury and Arizona State University, the Valley is not running short on a steady supply of professional-level sporting events. The Phoenix metro area appears to be an owner’s paradise at first glance — desirable weather, affordable living leading to more disposable income, high levels of tourism.
The Valley’s best asset, its massive transplant population, would seem to be the icing on the proverbial cake, but that’s not so. Most metro-area teams, aside from the Cardinals, struggle with attendance despite the area’s four million-plus population. Many residents complain about drive time (a minimum of 30 minutes for fans in Phoenix’s wealthier eastern suburbs to reach University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the Cardinals) as the reason they don’t attend games, while others remain loyal to childhood teams.
Phoenix’s first franchise, the Suns, was founded in the 1960s. The Cardinals didn’t arrive until the late 1980s, eventually followed by the Rattlers, Coyotes and Diamondbacks, respectively. In that time, the population increased by millions. With such booming growth, many Valley teams faced the daunting task of luring sports fans to new teams and stadiums.
While every franchise has enjoyed spurts of great success (the city’s sole “Big Four” — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — championship came in 2001 courtesy of the Diamondbacks), smaller sports struggled, soccer included.
On paper, Phoenix seems like a prime destination for professional soccer. With several youth teams faring well against national competition and a sizable Hispanic population — traditionally filled with strong soccer supporters — the city seems ripe for a team. However, the large influx of Big Four fans accompanied by poor results and leadership in Arizona’s soccer history has led to the sport’s marginalization in recent years.
To fans, the loss of the Wolves appeared to be the final dying wheeze of professional soccer amongst the cacti. Only a truly passionate group of fans would miss it, save for several others. Kyle Eng, the new owner of Arizona United, the state’s latest incarnate of pro soccer, was one of them.
I first learned of Eng and, more specifically, United, after my higher-ups approached me. A lifelong soccer fan, they felt I would be the perfect person to write this up.
I met Eng the same night I saw United play for the first time. Standing nearly 6-foot, he radiates energy and confidence. An advertising executive who moonlights as a soccer owner, Eng doesn’t sit much during matches. Or ever, from what I can tell. Though he lacks an extensive soccer background, he’s undeniably passionate.