Phoenix Rising FC is going all out to help the Valley secure a Major League Soccer franchise.
It was dust and sagebrush and nothingness and then, as if a nod to its tenant, a 6,000-seat soccer stadium suddenly rose from the crook of the Valley’s busiest freeways.
If the pop-up business symbolizes the zeitgeist of our times, the owners of Phoenix Rising FC know how to grab our attention. On Saturday, the facility, built in fewer than two months at the intersection of the 101 and 202 freeways, will showcase the team’s most public plea yet for the awarding of a Major League Soccer franchise.
It’s not that far-fetched.
When the United Soccer League team opens its season against Toronto FC II this weekend, the moment will be watched by MLS, which aims to add four teams in the coming years. It received a dozen expansion bids seven weeks ago, with the Phoenix group a late entrant with some unexpected muscle.
Two of the winning bids will be announced by the end of the year. The Valley is competing with Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa.
“I don’t know how we’re not at the top of the list of those 12 cities,” lead owner Berke Bakay said.
He is part of an eclectic ownership group that includes former Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy; DJ Diplo; musician Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy; Tim Reister, the owner of a large marketing company; businessman Dave Stearns; and orthopedic surgeon Christopher Yeung.
Bakay became president and CEO of restaurant chain Kona Grill following a successful career in private equity. His passion for soccer has its roots in his childhood in Istanbul, but even after he moved to the United States at 18 he always had soccer on his mind.
He believes the area has room for another professional franchise in a community that already houses NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball franchises, not to mention WNBA and Indoor Football League teams and a Power Five conference university.
“Back home, I knew the States were synonymous with basketball, baseball, ice hockey, but obviously since David Beckham came over there’s been buzz,” said Peter Ramage, a defender from Northern England who joined the team, then known as Arizona United, midway through last season. “It can be popular here.”
Bakay believes there is an untapped demographic. Forty-one percent of Phoenix’s residents are Hispanic, according to the most recent U.S. census, compared to 17 percent of the U.S. population.
Large soccer events have traditionally done well here, with CONCACAF’s Gold Cup in 2015 a sellout at University of Phoenix Stadium, drawing 62,910 fans to watch Trinidad and Tobago vs. Cuba and Mexico vs. Guatemala. A Copa America event last year between Mexico and Uruguay attracted about 60,000.
The group also believes that with the heart of Arizona State’s campus just a few miles away, it has a built-in audience. ASU and GCU students will get to attend one free game this season.
“We have the highest population of the 12 cities,” Bakay said. “We have the highest Hispanic population. And look at the crowd here for soccer, spring training, the Phoenix Open, NASCAR, NCAA games. There’s proven fan engagement if the product is high quality.”
MLS expanded to 22 teams this season by adding Atlanta and Minnesota. Those teams recently met in Minneapolis and 35,403 fans sat through 19 degrees and snow to watch them play.
The Los Angeles Football Club will join the league in 2018 and an expansion team in Miami is expected to come on board shortly.
Credit Valley advertising executive Kyle Eng with getting the big-stage soccer momentum rolling when he purchased Arizona United in 2014 after learning the USL was going to remove the franchise from the Valley. The club built some excitement but the organization was hampered by a lack of a facility.
Home games were played at the Peoria Sports Complex, but not until a month into the season because the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres held spring training there. That meant the team’s first five games were on the road when the weather in the Valley was still comfortable. Attendance averaged just 1,470.
In August, the club was sold to Bakay’s group and renamed Phoenix Rising.
If Phoenix is selected as an expansion franchise, a climate-controlled venue with a training complex will be built at the same site, on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Reservation. Bakay said no public money will be required for the stadium, which will be funded by the Native American community, the investor group and some third parties.
“When I went to the site, it was like, ‘This is what we’ve needed for a long, long time,’ ” said midfielder Blair Gavin, a Scottsdale Horizon High School and Sereno Soccer Club product whose stops included Chivas USA and the Seattle Sounders before joining this organization last year.
The new ownership group also knew it needed a little star power and added Omar Bravo, a popular and accomplished player from Mexico.
“The minute we brought in Omar Bravo, I had no less than 80 text messages,” Bakay said.
Defender J.J. Greer, who signed with the team in November after three seasons with USL teams in Charlotte and Colorado Springs, called the talent level “world class.”
“I’ve been in this league for a while but this is definitely the most talented team on paper I’ve played with,” he said.
Manager Frank Yallop acknowledged that “obviously, the big picture is bringing MLS to Phoenix. But first things first, we have to have a good product on the weekend and move forward through the season, and let the fans really enjoy it.
“MLS will come once that gets established. I think it’s important to have good attendance and have a fun team to watch that the community can get excited about.”
Yallop has seen firsthand the way this country can embrace soccer. He was the coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy when it signed Beckham, the English star, in 2007. Gate revenue peaked with 11,000 new season-ticket holders and sold-out luxury suites.
Attendance was 25,138 in 2016, about 93 percent of capacity at the StubHub Center. MLS had its biggest attendance last year since competition began in 1996, averaging 21,692 fans.
Will fans pay attention in the Valley?
It will be one of the things Major League Soccer examines closely.
An ad appeared on Craigslist Tuesday offering to pay fans $35, the cost of a ticket, to attend Saturday’s opener. “Payments will be distributed at the end of halftime in the supporters section,” it said.
The team issued a statement saying “the posting is a hoax. We are very concerned that area soccer fans not fall victim to this fraudulent activity.”
MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said in a teleconference with reporters recently that “we’re going to be pretty rigorous in trying to analyze each market and whether we think the fundamentals are there for success, including whether we think the fan support will be there.”
Bakay, too, stressed the important of attendance. He is optimistic about the strong youth participation in the area, the partnerships his group has formed and the popularity of the sport locally.
The Arizona Youth Soccer Association reported membership of 44,000 in the 2015-16 season. Several well-respected club programs exist in the area, and a new National Premier Soccer League team, FC Arizona, plays its home games at Mesa Community College.
MLS preseason training sites are located in Case Grande and Tucson.
“You go to tournaments on the weekend and thousands of kids are playing,” Gavin said. “I think bringing this team to where it’s going will have kids be able to look at the highest level and really start picturing themselves in it.”
“Hopefully,” Ramage said, “we can try and create the new Landon Donovan: American soccer stars from Phoenix, Arizona.”
People have stopped Ramage when he wears a shirt with the Phoenix Rising logo.
“They hear a foreign accent, they ask what you do and they say, ‘Oh yeah, Phoenix Rising, they’re off the 202.’
“People are starting to take notice of the club.”
That’s the plan.
Will it be enough?