Monday, February 25, 2013
(by Tom Dart si.com 2-25-13)
The storm that spat snow over this desert city last week was an aberration. But the sight of MLS teams tuning up in Tucson? It could well become routine this time of year.
Baseball has left this part of Arizona. Soccer is stepping in to plug the hole. The third annual Desert Diamond Cup concluded Saturday when the Seattle Sounders beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 in the final.
Also climaxing on Saturday was the fourth Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, an eight-team tournament at Orlando's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex with six MLS participants. Other clubs are playing at events in Portland and Charleston.
With structured and tourist-friendly preseason fixtures at high-caliber facilities in Arizona and Florida, MLS now has its own miniature versions of MLB's Cactus and Grapefruit spring training leagues, those beloved customs that have honed the commercialization of anticipation.
Even through pounding sleet, it's impossible not to notice the relationship with baseball in FC Tucson's Kino Sports Complex base. At Veterans Memorial Stadium the foul poles leer luminously over the corner flags, the scoreboard records innings, not goals, and the writing on the center-field wall might trick the unwary for a moment into believing that the pitch is 405-feet wide.
It's the home of the Tucson Padres minor league team, which is set to move to El Paso, Texas, in a year or two. It was the spring training center for MLB's Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks, while the Colorado Rockies were nearby. After the 2010 season, all had relocated to the Phoenix area rather than have the hassle of a four-hour round trip to play against the other Cactus League clubs.
Tucson was bereft. But FC Tucson was founded that same year, and in 2012 it entered the USL Premier Development League. Annually expanding its efforts to welcome professional teams as well as aiming to support the thriving local youth soccer scene, in the future it hopes to partner with an MLS franchise and join the USL Pro division.
"Tucson was a big part of spring training for a long time with MLB baseball, but with all the teams moving up to Phoenix there was a void left in our city and a lot of facility availability that we'd be able to repurpose for soccer," Tucson general manager Jonathan Pearlman said. "Our goal was to earn the designation, which we have, as MLS's western hub for spring training."
Other clubs passed through earlier in the offseason to benefit from the (usually) mild weather and pristine facilities. The city hosted its first international friendly in January when Canada met Denmark. "We've had half the league come here and play games -- 10 of the 19 teams have come through Tucson this year," Pearlman said.
"The response we've had from the teams has been tremendous. We're really happy that MLS wants to see this grow along with us and the teams do, it allows us to centralize their operations and I think that's going to be vital for the league to grow and for them to have an event that just kicks off their season properly."
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis seemed happy. "I really enjoy it, I think it's a well-done tournament, I really like the city, I like the atmosphere of the people here, I think they're all terrific," he said. "The food here is so good and the facilities are top-notch, so we're really pleased with what we've gotten out of this tournament so far."
The Pima County government received a $5 million settlement from the White Sox when they canceled their lease in 2008. About $2.8 million is going toward a 2,200-capacity soccer stadium to open in the fall, while conversions of baseball fields will ultimately give the complex six soccer pitches.
"At the stadium they've done great, but the fields across the street is what's won over the teams," Tucson coach Rick Schantz said. "They dug all the clay out of the infields and the surfaces are great, the facility's world class. The Diamondbacks and a lot of baseball teams, when they build stuff they don't mess around. You're talking about guys who are making $20 million a year. So the facilities are built for players like that. MLS guys have told a lot of us in the locker rooms, this is unbelievable. For MLS standards it's A-1."
Though March To March would have had an apt symmetry to it ahead of the start of the regular season next month, MLS branded the build-up as March To Soccer as the league seeks to generate buzz ahead of the first kick. In a notable step forward, the Desert Diamond Cup final was televised live on the NBC Sports Network.
"The MLS figures that through the MLS Cup then at the start of preseason here's only 45 days that they're not actually doing something," Schantz said. "If they can have something on TV or marketable through the preseason it just ramps it up.
"You've got to keep it fresh in people's minds, in Europe they play from August until May, they take a month off then everybody's watching those preseason tournaments. If they're not going to be on that FIFA calendar they have to maximize the amount of exposure they're getting. We feel that we fill that void."
MLS teams were wooed by the chance to use the training facilities for free and favorable accommodation rates. Tucson offered convenience as well as a good climate. "We've created basically a turnkey spring training package for the teams," FC Tucson co-managing partner Greg Foster said.
"We go out in the market, we get quotes for hotels, for transportation, for food and we present them to the teams and that's been attractive for them because we've done a lot of the legwork that they would have had to do anyway.
"The other thing we do for them is we find competition. Most of the MLS teams would like to play other MLS teams during preseason. We've taken that burden off them as well, we've said let us plan your games -- basically let us plan your preseason so you can focus only on training."
Ticket sales and sponsorship provide income for FC Tucson. Future plans include possibly expanding the tournament to six teams, perhaps inviting a club from Mexico. The border is only 70 miles south and, naturally, a large percentage of Pima County's one million residents is Mexican.
The more established and appealing the tournament becomes, the easier it will be to fill the empty local hotel rooms that were once occupied by baseball fans enjoying one of the great American sporting traditions. While the use of taxpayer dollars to fund facilities for professional sports franchises is often controversial, the economic impact can be considerable.
The Phoenix area benefits from the Cactus League to the tune of between $300-$422 million a year, depending on which estimate you believe.
With more clubs, expanded media coverage and smart marketing, soccer in the desert might become an attraction, then a habit, then a tradition. "Strikers and 'keepers report to spring training" has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?
David Beckham celebrated his Paris Saint-Germain debut by helping to create the second goal as the French leaders beat bitter rival Marseille 2-0 on Sunday.
The 37-year-old former England captain came off the bench in the 76th minute of a tight match and, in stoppage time, his clever flick with the outside of his foot released fellow substitute Jeremy Menez down the left. The subsequent cross was turned in by striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his league-leading 22nd goal of the season.
"The manager just told me to go and take the ball. There was a little bit of pressure on tonight, I enjoyed coming on,'' Beckham said. "I always knew that coming here and being a part of this team, I was never going to be in the starting 11 straight off, and that's the way I'll probably think for a while.''
After the second goal, Beckham rushed up to Ibrahimovic and jumped into the imposing Sweden striker's arms to the sound of cheers from relieved PSG fans because Marseille had forced eight saves from goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
"I needed a fresh player on the pitch. He brought us the quality of his passing, his experience, tactical understanding,'' PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti said, praising Beckham's impact.
With midfielder Marco Verratti suspended for Wednesday's French Cup game against Marseille, Ancelotti said Beckham could start.
PSG took the lead in the 11th minute when Brazil winger Lucas' shot deflected off center back Nicolas N'Koulou and wrong-footed goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
The win keeps PSG three points ahead of second-place Lyon and eight clear of third-place Marseille.
"It was a difficult match against an energetic team which put us under a lot of pressure,'' Ancelotti said.
Earlier Sunday, Lyon beat Lorient 3-1 and Bordeaux lost 2-0 at home to Brest, dropping to 10th place.
At Parc des Princes, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sat next to PSG sporting director Leonardo, while former Brazil striker Ronaldo and Samuel Eto'o were among the other high-profile guests watching Beckham.
The ground annoucner called for the crowd to give Beckham a warm welcome as he was paraded before fans five minutes before the start of the match, and he received a loud ovation. Fans chanted "David, David'' as he warmed up before coming on for playmaker Javier Pastore.
"The atmosphere in the stadium, the reception that I got tonight was pretty incredible,'' Beckham said. "Playing for a top-flight team, to be able to do that at my age, I'm very happy about that.''
Beckham is looking to win a championship title in a fourth different country after previous success with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Los Angeles Galaxy. He had not played a competitive match since his last appearance for the Galaxy on Dec. 1.
"It's been tough getting up to speed, because I obviously took seven weeks off and did absolutely nothing,'' Beckham said. "It was difficult to get back to fitness, but I feel good.''
Marseille lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Mathieu Valbuena sitting just behind center forward Andre
Pierre Gignac. But the visitors looked sloppy early on, and when Ibrahimovic flicked the ball on to Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Argentina winger hit the post with a fierce shot after just two minutes.
PSG took the lead when Blaise Matuidi slipped the ball to Lucas about 25 meters out, and his shot first clipped Joey Barton and then deflected off N'Koulou, with Mandanda stranded 10 meters off his line.
Marseille became more aggressive and winger Andre Ayew crashed into Ibrahimovic from behind, although Ayew came off worse.
Marseille had to wait until the 31st for its first shot on target as midfielder Foued Kadir's effort was tipped over by Sirigu.
Marseille gained in confidence, and Valbuena forced Sirigu into a low save with a free kick and Gignac also drew a save shortly afterward. Sirigu then made some fine stops in the second half to keep out an overhead kick and an angled drive from Gignac, and a looping header from Ayew.
"There's a feeling of frustration because we deserved to get back to 1-1,'' Marseille coach Elie Baup said. "Sirigu made quite a few saves, and we had 60 percent possession. But they were formidable on the break and took their chances.''
At Stade Gerland, Lorient took the lead in the 10th minute when Lyon goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre could only palm a header from Jeremie Aliadiere into his own net.
But goals from Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez, winger Rachid Ghezzal and substitute Arnold Mvuemba sealed a win for Lyon.
"I've always said that we play to be champions knowing there's PSG in our way,'' Lopez said. "As long as it's possible, I'll keep believing.''
Lyon conceded a late goal on Thursday to draw 1-1 with Tottenham and lose 3-2 on aggregate in the Europa League.
Meanwhile, Bordeaux conceded an own goal through defender Benoit Tremoulinas and Ahmed Kantari doubled the lead with a penalty.