Soccer’s success in Arizona validated by international events, youth soccer expansion

The announcement that the Copa America Centenario would bring international soccer matches to the Valley next summer was cheered by local officials who believe the powerhouse tournament will foster the development of the sport in Arizona.

“There’s a big following of soccer right now,” said Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers. Copa America games will be played at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium. “With the diversity that we have in our city, and in the Valley, soccer is big. I think this is only going to encourage more growth and I think in the future people will see a lot more soccer tournaments happening here.”

At the center of this is the development of the game among the state’s youth.

Joe Owen, the director of coaching and soccer operations for Sereno Soccer Club, a Valley youth soccer staple for 35 years, grew up and played in Arizona before leaving to play professionally. He was away from the desert for nearly 20 years before returning to his home state to coach.

“I have seen a lot of growth in the development of the players,” Owen said. “There are a lot more clubs here that are available for the kids to play.

“I think that it has helped at many levels for anyone in Arizona to have an opportunity to play and develop.”

Sereno is one of the most successful clubs for youth players in the state of Arizona. According to the club’s website, the program has produced 150 state champions, 12 regional champions, four national finalists and two national champions.

“Today soccer is very organized and the game has a very low barrier to entry, so to see the game grow in America is understandable,” said Todd Roby, director of marketing and communications for US Youth Soccer, in an email.

According to USyouthsoccer.org, the annual registration of youth players boasted its highest national numbers this past year since 2009, at 3,055,148 total participants.

Arizona is one of the most popular states in the West for youth soccer, coming in at fifth place, just below California, Washington, Colorado and Utah, at 51,672 total participants in 2014. Arizona Youth Soccer has more than 50 clubs available for young athletes to play across eight different districts.

“U.S. Youth Soccer and our member state associations, like Arizona Youth Soccer, are fully committed to providing the best in class programing, education and environments to see soccer continue to climb the participation charts,” Roby said. “Educating the leaders, teaching the best practices of how to establish a solid club or league and offering programming for various levels of play is the cornerstone of how we’ve been able to progress.”

Owen believes that the Copa America Centenario’s visit to the desert this summer will only help further drive this progress. The 16-team tournament, with games scheduled to be played across 10 U.S. metropolitan areas in June, is expected to include soccer powerhouses like Brazil and some of the game’s biggest individual names like Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

“We encourage our kids to watch as much soccer as possible; it’s a great educational tool. To have it now in our backyard, with some of the best players in world, (who) will be in our community for a pretty extended period of time, it will be pretty exciting for all the kids that play here to go see them first hand,” Owen said.

Kevin Boyd, who has been the coach of the Arizona State University women’s soccer team since 2007, agrees.

“I think it is a great opportunity for everybody not only in Phoenix, but Arizona. It gives us an opportunity to watch some high-level soccer,” said Boyd.

“For someone to see a professional or national team game first-hand plants a seed,” Roby said.

Even if young soccer players are not able to attend the games in person, Roby said just watching them on television drives interest in playing the game.

“The exposure to games on TV is a tremendous value for our sport,” said Roby. “The more people see soccer, the more people will see and understand what makes the game great and that fuels a passion.”

Television viewership of international soccer across the United States hit a record last summer. According to Ussoccer.com, citing a report from Fox, 23 million people watched the US Women’s National Team beat Japan to take home the Women’s World Cup in June, the largest audience for a soccer match in U.S. history.

Arizona’s passion for international soccer was on display last summer, when University of Phoenix Stadium hosted a group stage match for the CONCACAF Gold Cup between Guatemala and Mexico. According to Sports Business Daily, the match drew 62,910 fans, the most fans to attend a game during the event’s group stage. It was also the fourth highest attendance for a match in the tournament and well above the 41,854 average for all games across the country.

With the combination of youth soccer growth and the big-ticket international events that have decided to come to the Valley, it appears the future is bright for soccer in Arizona.

“I think the sky is the limit,” said Owen. “We continue to add clubs in the state… It helps the kids to be prepared to play at a higher level around the country and have college opportunities to play past youth soccer.”