FC Tucson & The Integrated Pyramid

FC Tucson’s New Affiliation With Phoenix Rising FC

It was announced in 2018 that Phoenix Rising had purchased PDL side FC Tucson and that the club would be joining the newly announced USL League One. USL Twitter immediately speculated that Tucson was going to be nothing more than a reserve/farm team for Phoenix Rising. Having watched Toronto FC II and Sounders II in the USL Championship, there was a real fear that FC Tucson would not be competitive. I personally worried that the club would singularly focus on development, and not care about results.

As the season approached, I heard sound bites from Phoenix Rising that the FC Tucson roster would be “an extension of the Rising roster”, and that FC Tucson would be part of an ‘integrated pyramid’. Then, FC Tucson announced the signing of Head Coach Darren Sawatzky. Coach Sawatzky is known for his time with the Sounders Organization, most recently with their U-23’s. He has proven to be excellent at developing young talent, yet his teams always seem to have success. In fact, his Sounders U-23 squad beat a Rick Shantz led FC Tucson in back-to-back PDL Western Conference Finals.

Over the past few months, Tucson has gotten to know the new head coach. He has a contagious passion for winning and brings out the best in his players. Coach Shantz told me that he pushed for Sawatzky to get the job because of his quality and experience as a head coach. Shantz said that he knows Darren will always be “straight forward and honest” with him, especially when they disagree. The two have known each other for years and have a great professional relationship. Sawatzky and Shantz were teammates and roomed together at the University of Portland. They have seemingly always been in competition with each other since. Sawatzky likes to point out that, “Rick has never beaten [him]”. One has to assume that includes the closed door friendly played between Phoenix Rising and FC Tucson a few weeks ago. If Sawatzky didn’t feel he would be given the support and freedom to win, then he would not have joined FC Tucson.

What I have seen over the past few months has really changed my mind about FC Tucson’s affiliation with Phoenix Rising. Coach Sawatzky is dedicated to building a team that is competitive, and that will win championships. The group of players that Director of Soccer Operations Jonathan Pearlman and Coach Sawatzky has assembled is impressive. There is a lot of experience, both domestic and international, on this FC Tucson Roster. Raheem Somersall is a St Kits and Nevis International with 6 caps on the Senior NT. Jose Carlos Terron went through Barcelona’s Academy and played the last few years in Spain’s 2nd and 3rd divisions. Austin Ledbetter, an FC Tucson alum, was with St. Louis FC and played against Phoenix Rising last season.

A part of FC Tucson’s relationship with Phoenix Rising is the integrated pyramid. FC Tucson would not be able to get players like this if there wasn’t the real possibility of moving up to the Rising Squad. That is FC Tucson’s advantage over other ‘affiliate’ teams in USL League One. The chance for players to move up to Phoenix from Tucson is much more tangible than going from an MLS “2” squad to the first team.

The obvious long term benefit of being affiliated with Phoenix Rising is the players that will be loaned down. Especially during the hot summer months, where Tucson plays a long stretch of away matches, the added depth from Phoenix Rising loanees will be much appreciated. From what I’ve gathered by talking to members of both Phoenix Rising and FC Tucson coaching staffs, there will be frequent transfers between the clubs. Rising players who are coming back from an injury might spend a few weeks with Tucson to build back up fitness. The most common reason to loan a player will be to give them minutes and to keep them match fit.

Midfielder Devin Vega is the first official loan between the two clubs. With the recent deluge of midfielder loans from MLS teams to Phoenix Rising, Vega had a hard time making the team sheet the past few weeks. This is the perfect opportunity to give him professional competitive minutes that will allow him to get into form. I imagine this loan will only last a few weeks before Vega is recalled, either due to an MLS loan being recalled or an injury to the Rising midfield. Speaking of MLS loans, apparently Phoenix Risings relationship with LAFC is now extending to FC Tucson. Last week, FC Tucson signed on loan U-20 US Men’s National Team Goalkeeper Philip Ejimadu from LAFC.

As the season progresses, we will see a number of players move back and forth between the two clubs. FC Tucson will loan players up to Phoenix when they need depth. Coach Shantz has stated how impressed he was by a number of FC Tucson players this preseason, including Ledbetter. If FC Tucson players continue to impress, they could break into the Rising lineup when the need arises. The player movement between the two clubs is something to keep an eye on, especially if you are a supporter of one of the other nine clubs in the league.

Featured Image of Austin Ledbetter, credit: Mark Thorstenson