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“It was an amazing thing to be a part of,” said Weber, square-jawed and built sturdy, about those days in 2015 with MLS champions Portland Timbers. He’s 34 now, moving into life after soccer, but he still lines up with area amateurs Sporting Arizona FC. “I wasn’t starting back then, but that championships was the result of all our blood sweat and tears. There was nothing like it and I’m hoping, here, to pass that feeling along to the younger guys.”
(Serious Focus - Weber, an MLS champ with Portland in 2015, is back at it in the amateur ranks. Photo Grace Stufkosky)
Weber’s trained his eyes, steely and determined as only a one-time pro’s can be, on building the game in his native Arizona – not the first place you think of when rattling off American soccer hotbeds. “We brought him [Weber] in because he brings so much experience and calm with him from his days playing at a high level,” said head coach Aidan Davison, who played until he was 40 – also a goalkeeper. Davison’s career spanned 24 years and he had stints with well-known English sides like Millwall, Hull City and Bolton Wanderers. He even had three caps for the Northern Ireland national team and a handful of appearances in the English Premier League. “Of course [Weber’s] talented and he can keep the ball out of the net, but he’s also a great mentor for the young guys in the team. He’s somewhere between a player and a coach for us.”
An Oasis in the Desert
Davison and Weber both talk about building something from the ground up in Arizona. It’s a nice notion, but quality players aren’t born from the earth overnight. You can’t make them, from nothing, out of clay. Half of Sporting’s starting XI on Wednesday (and Davison himself) came from FC Arizona of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). It was likely a bit awkward that it was those two teams sharing opposite ends of the field at Joe Riggs Stadium in their 2018 Open Cup debut. Tensions were high, as is to be expected, and the result was a slim 1-0 win for a Sporting side that now play in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).
(Sporting had an extensive preseason - with games against MLS' Sporting KC & Colorado Rapids. Photo Christopher Viveros)
Weber and Davison both know something about Cups – their own special breed of soccer competition. One-and-done. All-on-the-line. Extra tension. Extra excitement. No draws. Weber, as a goalkeeper who often found himself somewhere below the No. 1 spot in his ten-year journeyman MLS career with teams like the Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Montreal Impact and San Jose Earthquakes, got a lot of action in the U.S. Open Cup. “When I was in San Jose, I got to play in the Cup against Portland – and then the next year I’m in Portland and I got to play in the Cup against San Jose – and both times they’re away games. And then I’m in Seattle and we go and beat San Jose at their place – it was weird like that – I just kept bouncing from team to team, and I kept going back and playing my old team in the Cup. I played a lot of Cup games in my time with MLS and it’s always felt like a special tournament for me.”
For Davison, it was the FA Cup (Britain’s older brother to our Open Cup). He once reached a quarterfinal and even played at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea for Colchester near the end of a long career between the pipes. “This type of thing gives the smaller clubs – the Sporting AZs of the world – the opportunity to play bigger names, the ones that have more money and more opportunity. It levels the playing field for a moment and the excitement is like nothing else. Me, I love the Cups. Wherever they are.”
Weber and Davison see potential in the 2018 Open Cup – to get their club’s name out there. Maybe to pull off a shock or two. They face United Soccer League’s Phoenix Rising, with the tasty possibility of playing against Didier Drogba, (striker and part owner in the USL club). But mostly the pair hope to spread the word that there’s talent in Greater Phoenix – in the Valley of the Sun, and Arizona overall.
(Sporting head coach Aidan Davison had an over two-decade career in England. Photo Christopher Viveros)
“I’m from here and I like the idea of trying to build something from the ground up,” said Weber, one of only seven goalkeepers (out of 52) to keep a clean sheet on the opening day of the 2018 Open Cup. “The vibe is right. Most of the players are local and a lot of them grew up and played their soccer here – went to high school here. Building something grassroots, where I grew up, is definitely on my mind.”
Davison still owns the thick accent he got growing up in England’s Northeast. But he’s caught up in the spirit of building something out here in this faraway desert – here in America, where he’s called home since retiring from playing eight years ago. “A big thing we’re trying to do is put Arizona on the map,” said Davison, A League Cup runner-up in 1995 with Bolton. “We want these guys to get through college, to serve their community and to do it proudly. I love it here. I feel like a local and I want to give something back.”
The Arizona Conference of the UPSL is a long way from the cathedrals of the Premier League, or even the changing-rooms and training pitches of Major League Soccer. Sporting’s First Round game was played at a Community College in Mesa, Arizona and they rotate their home field in league play between a pair of local high school fields. Games are always in the evening, after the mean desert sun goes down, and training starts a little after 6 a.m. to beat that sun on the other side of the day. This is Phoenix after all, where the average daytime temperature in July can hit 105 degrees. And it’s amateur soccer, too, where you need to work or go to school, or otherwise earn you daily bread.
(A preseason friendly with the Rapids - they also played Phoenix Rising & OKC Energy. Photo Grace Stufkosky)
That said, there’s talent in this Sporting AZ FC team. There’s Alejandro Aguilar, a forward who used to play for Costa Rica giants Alajuelense and even earned a cap for the Costa Rican national team back in 2013. Mo Salama and Jon Guse, who scored the winner in the Open Cup win last week, bring experience and provide a solid spine. David Paul, Kenny McAvoy and Paul LaMarca are all quality players too.
There’s no hiding the enthusiasm in the team for this year’s Open Cup. “We’re always trying to express the importance of the Cup for what it is we’re trying to do here,” said Weber. “I mean, look at last year – what Christos did. It was amazing. And I remember the Cal FC teams in 2012 [the amateurs beat Portland Timbers in a magical Cup run that year] and thinking ‘is this really happening? Are these guys for real?’ You just never know what can happen in a Cup.”
It’s unlikely to end in Weber getting doused in champagne and lifting the Cup up over his head like he did in 2015. It is likely to end in a Second Round loss to the Rising, a full professional team with all the bells and whistles, and provide some lessons to the younger players in the Sporting team – the ones Weber mentors with his professionalism and experience. But, anything – anything – can happen in the Cup – Weber’s hopeful words are true. “There’s no reason we can’t get a good long run going – that’s what Cups are for,” added Davison. “There’s no reason we can’t play with the best.”