“That Game With Those Teams Out West”
by Jason Robertson
Today the champs will play a preseason friendly at home in South Carolina. Out in Florida, the model USL franchise will sit idle. But a real game for real points will be played in a not so little corner of the country. The 2013 season, amidst the frontier of expansion, and a major partnership announced with Major League Soccer will take off much to the elation of the fans and supporters of its teams.
The 2013 USL Pro season will open on today in Fullerton, California, when the Los Angeles Blues host the expansion Phoenix FC, far from the flagship franchises on the East coast. The Blues will look to bounce back under new head coach Jesus Rico-Sanz following an 8th place finish; on the outside of the playoffs and looking in. With only a minus 3 goal differential from last year, Los Angeles should compete, but in a league that grows more competitive each year, merely breaking even or being mediocre won’t be good enough to succeed. The Blues will need to cement themselves this year with a playoff appearance, not just for the players and front office, but for the fans who support them now, and potentially for seasons to come
On the surface, the choice to have the league’s first kick on the pitch of the least attended team over the last two seasons seems poorly chosen at the very least. The average attendance for the Blues last season was just shy of 700 a game. But perhaps, it isn’t incredibly difficult to see why. For starters, being a Los Angeles soccer team puts them in a conversation with the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy, and Chivas USA, who they share something of an interesting attendance parallel with; drawing the least in their respective leagues. But more importantly than this, one only needs look at a map of these United States to see why. The closest team to the Blues would be the Dayton Dutch Lions. Just a hop, skip, and a jump, and a four-day road trip to Ohio away.
That is of course until now. With Phoenix FC coming into the league this year the Blues have a natural geographical and historical rival. Most easily seen in the NBA and Pac 12 conference sports, Los Angeles and Phoenix do carry something of a city rivalry. Suns-Lakers. Sun Devils-Trojans. Coyotes-Kings. Cardinals-Oh Wait LA doesn’t have an NFL team. What they do have however, is an undying superiority complex in most cases over the city of Phoenix. The tension between the two cities doesn’t catch the national spotlight like a Boston and New York does, but it surely exists, and is apparent to anyone who spends any amount of time in Phoenix. And with the team struggling to get any significant (or insignificant) chunk of a crowded sports market, a Phoenix rival on the same pyramid level just seems like a natural starting point. And the Wolves haven’t done a bad job getting themselves battle ready for it either.
Phoenix FC is an expansion team that on paper doesn’t have the outward appearance of one. The Aberdeen veteran Darren Mackie brings an experience and scoring touch that any USL team (or NASL team, or the Chicago Fire) would like to have on their front line. Arizona native Andrew Weber slots in at Goalkeeper after having spent time with San Jose and Seattle. Brazilian Diego Faria has shown very well in practice, and the front office has absolutely nothing but good things to say about Faria and the two other Brazilians they’ve signed. If I’m reading and comparing my roster sheets correctly, I think, and this is not a statement made often, that Phoenix may have a better team than Los Angeles. Their superiority complex is in jeopardy of being challenged. If this reality isn’t enough to incite some passion in the LA fans I’m not sure anything will.
This almost feels like an unofficial start to the season. Like it’s just ‘that game with those teams out West.’ It’s the only league game taking place this weekend. The question as to why this game isn’t taking place in Phoenix still begs for an answer, but that doesn’t undermine the importance of this game being the first in the Wolves’ history. Sure it won’t have the flash of Orlando City SC, or the history of the Richmond Kickers behind it, but what it does have is the potential to be the first of many great games played closer to the Pacific ocean. It has the potential to be the start of a showcase rivalry. With Sacramento gaining a franchise and entering the league next year, perhaps the tri-force of Western teams will fuel each other’s fan support by a mutual hatred and respect (or lack thereof.) The best things that could happen in Saturday’s game are a high quantity of goals, a late dramatic winner, and perhaps even some referee drama. Anything that can help light the fire between these two teams, thus setting the stage for a future in which Phoenix and LA games are ones the entire league takes notice of. Anything to help get the people of Fullerton in the seats. Anything to show that all the work and business growing pains (and there have been many) that Phoenix FC has had in its formative years was worth it. Anything to make fans of all teams circle the rematch on their calendars.
The beginning of the season is always an exciting time, full of possibilities, intrigue, and anticipation for what’s to come. For Phoenix FC, The Los Angeles Blues, and any soccer fans west of the Mississippi who would like to see a pro team in their city, this beginning seems to have just a little more excitement hanging on it.