Building dreams: Phoenix Rising FC paving way for Arizona’s soccer future, one youth player at a time

Phoenix Rising FC Youth Soccer provides a platform for young players to develop their skills and passion for soccer. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising)

PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising FC’s USL championship brought home one of the most prized national achievements for American soccer, however, the gem of Arizona soccer lies not with the team itself, but within the organization’s comprehensive youth league where homegrown players are developed into professional athletes.

Phoenix Rising FC Youth Soccer is a league that coaches and develops young soccer players in recreational and competitive programs, with each side having over 3,000 boys and girls participating. It is the largest soccer club in Arizona, spread over six different geographic regions, with participants playing in leagues, events and tournaments in and out of state.

The league started in 2018 when the Rising approached a pre-existing youth club called the Scottsdale Soccer Blackhawks about merging. One of the largest independent youth soccer clubs in Arizona at the time, the Blackhawks rebranded as the more recognizable Phoenix Rising and gained access to the resources to replicate their success as a club across different parts of Arizona.

Though “no one would really bat an eyelid” in a coffee shop when Neil Graham wore Blackhawks gear, the Rising brand makes a noticeable difference. Graham, a development director for the recreational side of Phoenix Rising Youth, spent 10 years with the Blackhawks before the acquisition and added that the merger allowed them to expand their model to other parts of Arizona.

Phoenix Rising FC demonstrates the organization’s dedication to the game and developing the youth in the Valley. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising)

“The Scottsdale branch … has been around since the early 80s, and it started off as a volunteer-run club that was an introduction for kids to play soccer,” Graham said. “That plan was we take the model we had in Scottsdale … with the ultimate goal being anywhere in Phoenix could a child who’s interested in playing soccer have a Phoenix Rising experience.”

The acquisition created a direct pathway from youth soccer to professional soccer. The organization has membership in the Elite Clubs National League for boys and girls, founding membership in the MLS Academy Program and its own College Advisory Program. These programs combine with the Scottsdale Soccer Blackhawks’ successful club model to give kids an excess of opportunities to develop into professional athletes.

There is also the added benefit of having exposure to the Phoenix Rising brand and professional team. Graham mentioned that in a Rising preseason matchup with the Portland Timbers, several players that got on the field were players he could “remember playing in the club since they were six, seven years old.”

For the girls, similar opportunities might be on the horizon. The USL Super League is debuting later this year, and while Arizona is not one of the initial markets, there could be two in the future. The Phoenix Rising owners initially planned on being a part of the league before recently pulling out, but they are open to rejoining “when the time is right.”

Tucson is another host city planned for the future. If either of these markets join the USL Super League, they would welcome the highest level of professional women’s soccer played in Arizona.

“The opportunity to see that women are striving in athletics and, in particular, soccer … now that women are very much part of the process now in Arizona,” said Paul Taylor, director of the ECNL girls program. “It gives our players someone to look up to and something to strive for.”

Arizona is a growing sports state and has produced some notable U.S. Women’s National Team players recently, including Mesa native Julie Ertz and Gilbert native Ashley Hatch. According to Tibor Pelle, the organization’s College Advisory Program director, Arizona would be a good choice for a women’s professional soccer team at this level.

With a focus on player development and community engagement, Phoenix Rising FC Youth Soccer continues to inspire the next generation of soccer stars in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising)

With a focus on player development and community engagement, Phoenix Rising FC Youth Soccer continues to inspire the next generation of soccer stars in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising)

“Arizona is a sports mecca, and has produced some really prominent female players into the national team programs,” Pelle said. “Given the right resources, the right coaching, we have the climate, we have the facilities, I think there’s a whole lot of potential.”

Pelle and the College Advisory Program have done their best to develop girl’s soccer in Arizona. Phoenix Rising Youth Soccer has placed 138 women into college programs in the last five years, according to the team.

Another notable staff member on the Rising’s youth side is former USWNT player Kelly Cagle, who worked as a coach and leadership director for several years. Cagle, whose daughter spent time in the youth program and is now in the selection process for the U20 USWNT, thinks a new opportunity will be great for young girls in Arizona.

“It gives them the opportunity … to compete at the highest level that might help them be able to make their dreams of playing pro after college,” Cagle said. “There’s a real clear pathway from the youth to the potential pro level. We’re the only club in the valley to offer that ability.”

Graham and Taylor are familiar with European soccer, and Pelle played college soccer at UCLA. They are all well aware of the difference in soccer culture between America and overseas.

Although Phoenix Rising Youth participation numbers have remained steady, they run into problems with lacking facilities and refereeing, and they sometimes lose some athletes to other sports. But along with the rest of the staff, they are always trying to improve the experience for their young athletes.

They believe establishing soccer as a culture in the United States will help. And they believe it can be done here in Arizona.

Brevan Branscum(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brevan Branscum expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.