Soccer replaces baseball in the birthplace of the Cactus League

By Paul Kennedy

As the last of the MLS clubs headed home from Tucson on Sunday, they could see in their rear-view windows on the north side of Kino Sports Complex the giant backstops, the only evidence that baseball was once king in Tucson.

What were once baseball fields have been converted to soccer fields, and for the last six weeks MLS teams, 10 in all, came in and out of Tucson for training. Five played in the four-game FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup that concluded last weekend.

Each MLS team had its own full-length field in the complex of fields that surround the new North Stadium that is home to the local PDL club, FC Tucson, and the Desert Diamond Cup. Everything is so wide open that you didn't get the sense coaches and players were bothered by having four other teams training alongside them. Each team was provided with a golf cart, and dozens of interns from the nearby University of Arizona sports management program helped out as gofers for the team staff and shagged balls behind the goals and offered local dining and entertainment tips for players on their afternoons or evenings off.

If Kino Sports Complex felt like real spring training, that's because it is a real spring training. The complex is complete with locker rooms, training rooms, laundry facilities and conference rooms and offices. The dirty little secret is that soccer is helping bail out Pima County, which poured $37 million into Kino Sports Complex only for the three Major League League teams and all their minor-league teams that used Tucson for spring training to leave for Phoenix.

It all began when the Phoenix suburb of Glendale enticed the Chicago White Sox to leave Tucson and the Los Angeles Dodgers to leave Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., their spring training home dating back to the 1940s, and move to the new complex it built at a cost of $158 million. To get out of their lease, the White Sox paid Pima County a $5 million penalty, but their departure in 2009 gave the Arizona Diamondbacks an escape clause in their lease with Pima County, and the Colorado Rockies, Tucson's third MLB team playing at Hi Corbett Field, followed suit, moving together to a facility on tribal land near Scottsdale.

Thus ended more than 60 years of the Cactus League in Tucson, its original home. (The story goes that Bill Veeck, the colorful Cleveland Indians owner, owned a ranch near Tucson and convinced the New York Giants to move together in the late 1940s to Arizona, where newly integrated baseball teams could escape Florida's Jim Crow laws.)

MLS's move into Tucson wasn't exactly planned. As often is the case when the World Cup is held, the 2010 tournament in South Africa caught the attention of some Tucson civic leaders, and an exploratory group was formed to see what it would take to bring big-time soccer to Tucson. Their conclusion: they didn't have a clue how to bring big-time soccer to Tucson.

Tucson's break came in the winter of 2011 when Sporting Kansas City, which was training in Phoenix, sought to set up a game with the New York Red Bulls. Team administrator Rick Dressel called a friend, Rick Schantz, now the FC Tucson head coach, and asked if anyone in Tucson was interested in putting on a game.

Says Greg Foster, one of four managing partners of FC Tucson along with former MLS executive Chris Keeney, Jon Pearlman, the general manager, and Schantz, "We had never put on a game, but we said, 'Why not?'" They had three weeks to sells tickets and get the baseball field at 9,500-seat Hi Corbett Field, the old Rockies' home, ready for soccer, but the game, which featured Mexican stars Rafael Marquez and Omar Bravo, sold out.

"They had to close the gates while there was a line around the stadium because there wasn't enough bathroom capacity," says Foster. "We realized that we may not be experienced event promoters, but it seemed like the market might be interested in this."

By the next winter, the first two MLS teams, Sporting KC and San Jose, arrived in late January for early training and the first Desert Diamond Cup was held with four teams. There were still no permanent soccer fields, but the weather was good -- usually -- and the fields soft -- perfect for lots of running during two-a-days.

In January 2013, Pima County authorized $2.8 million in improvements to Kino Sports Complex to build the North Stadium grandstand and bleachers, a new scoreboard, restrooms and concession facilities and convert the baseball fields to soccer fields. By the end of the year, the new stadium opened with a friendly between FC Tucson and Chivas USA.

Foster praises the collaboration among Major League Soccer, Pima County, the MLS clubs and FC Tucson for trying to develop a preseason training home to prepare teams for the new season and develop a spectator event that helps MLS ramp up the new season and serves as a promotional tool for Tucson.

"All the groups see the event largely the same way," he says, "and I think each of them has been supportive in the ways they can be supportive. That gives me hope for the model." In particular, Foster praised Pima County for listening to the needs of MLS clubs on what kind of facility they need and for MLS clubs for being open-minded and taking a chance on Tucson when it first only had baseball fields.

There is very much an entrepreneurial feel to the operation. Keeney, who was a sales executive with D.C. United, Real Salt and Columbus before being lured to the NFL Houston Texans, took customer service calls on his cell phone during games. One of Foster's jobs this year was to launch the concessions, which included homemade kebabs and Sonoran dogs with sauces his wife and a friend made.

That FC Tucson has a staff in place for its PDL operation allows it to connect into the community on the business side and with MLS clubs on the technical and operational side. They use social media religiously and cheaply, especially Facebook, to connect with fans, especially those outside the area they hope to lure to Tucson as traveling fans. After all, bringing tourists to Tucson is why Pima County got behind the project in the first place. FC Tucson even has its own Saturday morning radio show on the local ESPN affiliate. No better way to sell the soccer gospel in a town where UA sports is king.

"All the MLS clubs are very entrepreneurial and willing to work with us," Foster adds. "I am not sure it would have happened with the National Football League or Major League Baseball."

The main building Pima County built for the White Sox and their minor league teams allowed all five MLS teams to have their own locker rooms for their two weeks in Tucson. The Rapids' Pablo Mastroeni used the conference room almost every day for team meetings and lunches. For equipment managers used to running around town with bags of quarters in search of laundromats, the on-site laundry facilities sold them on the complex.

Yes, the Kino facility could use more showers. When Seattle and Sporting Kansas City were in camp together early in preseason, one Sounders player had to retrieve some toiletries from his locker and returned to discover to his chagrin a Sporting KC player had occupied his shower stall. He'll get a chance to get even on Saturday when they meet in the MLS opener.

FC Tucson might add more teams to the Desert Diamond Cup and hopes to bid on the MLS Player Combine. A youth component -- allowing MLS academy teams in winter-weather markets to shadow the first teams -- is being considered. FC Tucson will welcome the NWSL champion Portland Thorns for a week of training in late March. It hopes to expand on the November window for MLS teams out of the playoffs needing a place for postseason work before their players' contractual offseasons begin.

"I've been to a lot of different venues," said Chicago Fire coach Frank Yallop, who has been coaching in MLS since 2001, "and by far this is the best. It gets us tuned up. Our guys feels professional. They come here in vans. They get changed. They shower. You feel like you are in your home environment."

Yallop was in Tucson the first year of winter training with the Quakes two years ago and says the difference is like night and day.

"The field is in terrific condition," he says. "Everything we need as a club is taken care of from hotels to training times to watering the field. I could go on and on. We'll definitely be coming back here next year. I just have to be sure to get my slot."
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