Phoenix Awarded Upper-Division Pro Soccer Franchise

USL Pro logo, from USL website.

USL PRO announces new franchise to start play in spring of 2013. Dare we believe this is really happening?

All signs point to the establishment of a new professional soccer franchise in Phoenix in 2013, according to a statement from USL PRO, an American soccer league with 11 teams this season that is in essence two levels beneath Major League Soccer in the organization of the United States Soccer Federation.

An official launch event is scheduled for later this summer, at which the team name, coaching staff and venue will be announced.

"I would expect it has to be a high-profile venue," said Chris Keeney, a co-managing partner in FC Tucson, currently the highest-level USL (United Soccer Leagues) club in Arizona. Keeney is also the Southwestern territory representative for USL, and oversees potential league expansion into Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California.

USL PRO Phoenix is spearheaded by a group of investors calling itself BDR Investing, LLC, led by developer Tim Thomas. Thomas is joined by partners Damon Del Deo, who has owned logging, mining and various real state ventures; and Shawn Diedtrich, a Phoenix business attorney.

A fourth investor, according to the announcement from USL PRO, is Rui Filipe Bento, a longtime soccer advocate and who will serve as the club's general manager. Apparently the group was able to raise the money needed to pay the franchise fee, which could have been between $500,000 and $1 million.

The news of the expansion to Phoenix was first reported by AZCentral.com's soccer writer Jose Garcia.

"This is a very good thing, to put a USL PRO franchise in Phoenix is a big step for everyone," Keeney said. "If these guys are successful, it will only help us (FC Tucson). I think it's going to succeed because Phoenix is a soccer town. The ownership group is very good."

USL PRO's official statement included a quote from USL CEO Alec Papadakis, who said the following:

"This is an important moment for USL PRO as we continue to build for the future. USL PRO is already experiencing a great deal of success on and off the field, and the addition of a solid group in Phoenix continues our plan of western expansion which will ultimately lead to eastern and western conferences. BDR Sports' leaders possess the vision and experience to make professional soccer a success in Phoenix through USL PRO, and we welcome them into our family."

Keeney said the arrival of a team in Phoenix will only strengthen FC Tucson's resolve to move up to USL PRO, and possibly beyond. FC Tucson plays in the USL Premier Development League, a league of 73 teams across the U.S. and Canada that is mainly for elite college players and is essentially the fourth division of U.S. soccer.

"We're going to operate as if we're a USL PRO team," Keeney said. "If these guys are successful, it will only help us."

There's bound to be some concerns and questions about the financial and operational viability of the new franchise. Where will it play? The league's season runs from April to August, the hottest time of the year in the Valley, even at night. The only team on the West Coast is the Los Angeles Blues, so there would have to be further expansion out West so as to save on travel costs for the clubs and form two true conferences, Eastern and Western.

BDR filed an official inquiry with the Arizona Corporation Commission to become an LLC about two weeks ago. The document lists Bento and Diedtrich, both of Buckeye, as managers. While this proposal has without a doubt been in the works for some time, it seems that things only just recently came together to the point where an announcement could be made. That in itself might raise some franchise sustainability questions.

There's no question about the USL's sustainability. The organization is in its 25th year, and soccer continues to grow in the U.S. and Canada, where a few USL teams are located.

The Phoenix Business Journal on Sunday reported that Phoenix was on a list of cities being looked at for expansion in the higher-level North American Soccer League (NASL), but that is more than likely off the table now with USL PRO's announcement. NASL is U.S. soccer's second division, one rung below MLS.

The level of talent for players should be pretty good, by North American standards, and there will likely be younger international players on the Phoenix roster. USL PRO teams are developmental grounds for MLS, and have a history of being very competitive in the annual U.S. Open Cup tournament, where USL PRO teams often face MLS clubs in tournament play.

On the surface, this has a chance to be something special, and soccer fans in the region should be thrilled at what is likely the most real-sounding and legitimate announcement of a pro soccer team in these parts. But it's understandable to take this with a grain of salt, given the numerous failed attempts to make it happen in the past.

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