Soccer’s popularity in Arizona has helped Phoenix Rising groom top academy players

Jacob Harris, left, and Josh Martinez are the latest players the Phoenix Rising have signed from their youth academy. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC)

CHANDLER – From new and growing professional teams to ever-expanding youth opportunities, soccer has blossomed into one of Arizona’s most popular sports.

Phoenix Rising FC is taking advantage of the boom, and recently signed Jacob Harris and Josh Martinez from its youth academy, bringing the number of Phoenix natives on the squad to five.

Harris, 18, and Martinez, 17, join fellow Rising academy graduate Niall Dunn and defenders Ryan Flood and Channing Chasten as the only Arizona natives on the squad. Although it features twice as many international players than local players, the tally is growing as is the soccer talent in the state.

“I’ve always told people from all over the country that Arizona has probably the best youth soccer programs in the country,” Chasten said. “We have like three kids (from Hamilton High School), Niall and then Josh Martinez coming in. It just goes to show high school soccer and academies out here, what they’re producing, it’s a good product.”

The most experienced of the Rising’s local players is Ryan Flood, 23, who is from Scottsdale and attended Corona Del Sol High School. After playing for multiple clubs across the Valley in his youth career, Flood signed with FC Arizona in 2018, a local lower division side. It wasn’t until March of 2021 that he got his shot with Phoenix Rising, playing on trial with the team before signing. Flood had to try out for Rising three times before he was eventually signed to a deal.

The next Valley native on Phoenix Rising is Queen Creek’s Chasten, who signed before the start of this season after three years playing at Ohio State.

At just 21, Chasten left Ohio State early to sign with Rising, finishing his classes online while playing, making Phoenix Rising his first professional team.

“It’s a blessing. I’m happy to be here,” Chasten said.

He has made four appearances for the Rising including one start in the team’s Open Cup victory against New Mexico.

“It’s enjoyable, never pressure, I have fun out there. I always have like 10, 15 people there at each game so it’s pretty cool to have them support our whole team,” Chasten said.

Excelling as a player in the Phoenix Rising’s academy could eventually mean a professional contract with the club, as it did for Niall Dunn. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC)

Another local on the team is Chasten’s fellow Hamilton graduate Dunn, who played club soccer for the Phoenix Rising youth academy and signed an academy contract in April 2021. An academy contract, which is what Harris and Martinez just signed, is a two-way deal that allows players to compete in both the youth and professional sides while maintaining college eligibility.

Dunn didn’t remain on an academy contract for long, however, as he signed a full professional contract at just 16 after impressing in the 2021 preseason. By signing, Dunn became the first, and only, academy player to be offered a professional contract by Rising. He is recovering from a long-term injury, but coach Rick Schantz has previously acknowledged his excitement about getting the young defender back.

“I’ve always believed Arizona was loaded with talented players,” Schantz said after signing Dunn. “It has been a hidden gem for a number of reasons, but … now, for players to be recognized at a much earlier age and potentially play professionally here in their hometown, I hope we’re creating more dreams and goals for young kids. That’s what it’s all about. They have to aspire to do something. We hope playing for Phoenix Rising becomes one of them.”

Phoenix has now recognized two more young academy talents in Harris and Martinez. Both have played for the Phoenix Rising’s youth academy since its inception in 2012 when they were just 8.

I love playing with Josh,” Harris said. “We have a lot of chemistry and history playing together. I’m super excited to have the opportunity to play with him at the next level. I remember being at the very first game for Phoenix Rising in 2017. It’s crazy. Going from a fan in the stands to now playing for the team. This is an opportunity I’ve always dreamed about.”

Harris and Martinez have spent time training with Rising’s first team in the past and their performances earned them both academy contracts, allowing them to train and play with the squad while also competing for their academy team.

Harris, who attends Cactus Shadows High School, is more of a forward-playing midfielder with strong decision-making, never looking out of place with the first team, Rising assistant coach Danny Stone said.

Martinez, a soon-to-be Hamilton graduate, is more of a defensive midfielder whose passing ability and understanding of the game have set him apart.

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“Anytime those academy players are rewarded for their play at the academy level by being included in the first team training sessions or games, it takes those players out of their comfort zones and tests them,” Stone said. “Both players have consistently done well in those situations and that’s a credit to the work they put in daily with the academy and their staff.”

The youth academy set-up is a major reason these players have reached the heights of the first team. The Phoenix Rising academy is a youth club like many others in the Valley, but what sets it apart is the direct pathway to the professional Phoenix Rising squad. The Rising look to the youth academy for bright, young players they can help develop into professional players.

“We hope that these kids fall in love with the organization, they fall in love with the club and giving them a taste of first team football. The hope is that that they’re kind of, you know, lifelong fans, or at some point, we can sign them to a pro contract,” Schantz said. “It’s unbelievable what we have now at our disposal and most of it is due to the amazing coaches and supporters and administrators we have in our youth club.”

Schantz said the plan for Harris and Martinez is to continue to train and develop with the first team, maybe getting a run-out in a game or two, and then once the time comes, they’ll play collegiately. But as the other Arizona natives on the team show, you never know what might happen. Chasten signed with Phoenix Rising before the end of his college career and Dunn was on an academy contract before impressing enough to be fully signed.

One thing is for certain: Jacob Harris and Josh Martinez are players to watch for the future.

Harrison Campbell HAIR-i-son CAM-bull
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Harrison Campbell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media studies. Campbell has interned as a reporter at O’Rourke Media Group and worked as the lead boxing reporter at Fight Club.