U.S. Open Cup provides opportunities for Sporting AZ FC amateurs

Sporting AZ’s Ryan Flood dribbles the ball while trying to avoid Fresno’s Mickey Daly during Sporting AZ’s 2-1 overtime loss to Fresno in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup last week at John D. Riggs Stadium in Mesa. (Josh Martinez/Cronkite News)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published using an incorrect identification of Sporting AZ FC’s name as well as misidentifying the day of the team’s match against Fresno FC. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Sporting AZ FC made a run through the 2018 U.S. Open Cup and even though it ended prematurely last week at Mesa’s John D. Riggs Stadium, the club walked away with benefits in hand.

The team fell to Fresno FC 2–1 in overtime but kept Fresno on its toes until the end of the match, a representation of how Sporting played throughout the tournament against higher-level teams.

The U.S. Open Cup, which U.S. Soccer runs, features soccer teams from various levels. Lower-level teams play in the first three rounds for a chance to play Major League Soccer teams in the last three rounds.

Since the dawn of the millennium, an MLS team has won the Cup but that doesn’t stop teams like Sporting AZ from making statements.

The East Valley club was the lone Arizona representative left in the tournament after beating fellow amateur team FC Arizona and high-profile Phoenix Rising out of the country’s second-tier league.

“(This run) says to everyone that Arizona has talent,” Sporting coach Aidan Davison said. “They should be looking at the talent in Arizona because there are a lot of players that are underrated and have been underrated for many years and the kids have really elevated to the next level.”

Like other clubs before it, Davison said this club benefits from the Cup and it needs the tournament for growth.

“It’s not just important, (the Cup is) vital,” Davison said. “Not only does it bring in revenue, it also brings in exposure for the player, for the club and for the good of the area.”

Sporting AZ features a mix of players with several who hail from Arizona. Some are early in their careers, others are on the tail end.

Some players, like former Tempe Corona del Sol’s Ryan Flood, work part-time jobs on top of playing for the club. Flood graduated from Corona del Sol in 2017 and said he does have aspirations of playing at a higher level.

That’s where the Cup can help players. It provides exposure that would otherwise be hard to come by if just following a typical schedule. Sporting AZ competes in the United Premier Soccer League, an adult amateur league that has more than 70 men teams.

Team captain Jon Guse said this year’s run in the Cup is going to be particularly beneficial for the club.

“The more success we have, the more recognition we’re getting,” Guse said. “Obviously, we’re building our brand into something special.”

Guse graduated from Chandler Hamilton in 2005 and played four years at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania. He said the MLS wasn’t as profitable and decided to begin a career in accounting.

He did play a bit of soccer during that time like 6v6 league play but nothing too serious. He signed with FC Arizona in 2017 and has played competitively ever since although his main focus is his accounting career.

Although Guse said if an opportunity came to further his soccer career, he would consider it, but that’s not why he competes for Sporting AZ. He said he loves the game and he cares about his teammates.

“For me, it’s about helping some of these young guys building up something special here in this program,” he said.

Andrew Weber — who has played in the MLS for various teams including MLS Cup-winners Portland Timbers — said helping the younger players is a shared goal among many in the organization.

The Cup not only presented Sporting AZ an opportunity to win, Weber said, but a chance to “make milestones.”

“Our ownership group is committed to not only winning but making sure that we stick around for years to come,” he said.

As the players filed off the field Wednesday after the loss, their heads hung low. Flood had scored their lone goal of the night and it took a lot of effort to break through Fresno’s defense in the 66th minute.

But the support flooded in on social media with fans offering words of encouragement, some coming from Phoenix Rising fans.

Although Sporting walked away with a loss, it had played close to two second-tier soccer teams.

“We want to be challenged,” Davison said. “We want to play against better players and franchises with slightly more money than us because it gives us an incentive to step up our game.”

Editor’s Note: Mr. Martinez is a masters degree student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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