The Arizona Sahuaros pose for a team photo with Boca Juniors of Argentina as part of the 2007 Copa PanAmericana. The Sahuaros played exhibition games against Boca and Mexican clubs Cruz Azul and Club America. Photo: Arizona Sahuaros.
You might be hard pressed to find a bigger soccer advocate in the state of Arizona than the manager of the Arizona Sahuaros, Petar Draksin. The Grand Canyon University coach doesn’t get paid to manage the Sahauros, a club that has existed continuously, in many forms, since 1989. He also “will never give up” in his effort to bring high-level professional soccer to the city that he loves and works tirelessly to help his players move on to the next level.
This is the third time in the last four years that Draksin has led his team through USASA Region IV qualifying into the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. This year marks the fifth year that the club has qualified as a franchise. What makes that feat remarkable is that this year, just like their 2006 appearance, they have qualified without being affiliated with a league.
This year, the club is on hiatus from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) due to the fact that the league lacks enough teams in the Southwest. Arizona and San Diego United are the lone teams in that part of the country and both are sitting this year out. San Diego is playing in a local league, while Arizona is just playing exhibition games and tournaments.
“Our location is a challenge,” said Draksin. “We’re waiting for the NPSL to find teams in this area, so that travel costs won’t be such a burden.” He added that cities like El Paso and Albuquerque would be a good fit for the league.
There are plenty of local teams in the USL’s Premier Development League, but he said financially it just doesn’t work right now. “If the USL had the right financial situation, we would love to join the PDL,” said Draksin, who has a tremendous respect for the league.
The club has a very committed ownership group, but at the same time, with the economy being what it is, having to travel to places in the NPSL Western Conference like Northern California and Oregon was just too much. “We’re very lucky to have the ownership we have, but right now, playing exhibitions and competing in the Open Cup is all they can allow right now.”
|The Sahuaros have had three name changes and have played in three different leagues (as well as spending time without a league) in their 21 years as a club.
1989-92: Phoenix Hearts (Indoor)
1990-91: Phoenix Hearts (PDL)
1992-95: Arizona Cotton (PDL)
1996: Arizona Phoenix (PDL)
1997-02: Arizona Sahuaros (D3 Pro)
2005-07: No league
2009: No league
Draksin moved to New York City in 1976 from his native Yugoslavia. There he was thrust into the thriving club soccer scene in the city, which was dominating the Open Cup at the time. Between 1967 and 1984, the Open Cup tournament was won by a team from New York or New Jersey 12 times. Draksin describes playing at the historic Metropolitan Oval as an experience he’ll never forget as he played for the German Hungarians and the Brooklyn Italians.
He relocated to Phoenix where he has been the head coach at Grand Canyon University for almost 20 years, and has overseen the Sahuaros from the beginning. The franchise started in 1989 as an indoor team called the Phoenix Hearts and three name changes and three different leagues later, the Sahuaros are celebrating their 21st year as a club.
If two games would have gone their way over the last few years, this story would be discussing Arizona’s fifth straight Open Cup berth. The only qualifying efforts that fell short were in 2005 and 2007 when they lost to the team that advanced to the Open Cup from Region IV.
This year, it was a scoreless draw against Miran (California South) on the final day that was the club’s third near miss, leaving them two points shy of winning the group and moving on to the Cup. However, it was determined that there were multiple players on the Miran roster who were ineligible. This wasn’t discovered by Arizona until after their match was completed and the Region IV rules state that you cannot file a protest after the match is over. Therefore, the Sahuaros and the other clubs in the tournament, petitioned Region IV semifinalists Sonoma County Sol to file a protest on their behalf before the final. The protest was upheld, Miran was disqualified and the Sahuaros took their place in the US Open Cup.
|After winning the USASA Region IV tournament in 2008, they qualified for the national cup finals in Seattle. There they were defeated in the national championship game 2-1 in extra time by the New York Pancyprian Freedoms from Region I.
“There are rules that everyone has to follow,” said Draksin, who left as many as four players off his tournament roster due to eligibility issues. “Sonoma did the right thing to protest. Miran is a very good club and it was a learning experience for everyone.” He added that the rule that you can’t protest after a match is complete is one that needs to be evaluated and changed for future tournaments. This situation caused the Sahauros to miss out on an opportunity to play for the national finals, but Coach Draksin says he wasn’t that disappointed because he values the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup above all over competitions.
Last year’s run in the Open Cup was one that Draksin and his club will cherish. After qualifying on a goal difference tiebreaker with Sonoma County Sol (Arizona was a +5, Sonoma was a +4), the Sahuaros earned a home date with the Seattle Sounders of the USL First Division. It was 117 minutes of scoreless soccer in Phoenix as the Sahuaros battled with one of the top clubs in USL-1. Seattle wasn’t taking Arizona lightly as they brought their full compliment of players to the desert that night. Finally in the 118th minute, Kenji Treschuk scored the winner for the Sounders to save them from the uncertainty of penalty kicks.
According to Draksin, Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer said his team was “lucky” to get out of Grand Canyon University with the win, which the Sahuaros head coach took as the highest compliment from a team of that quality.
Sahuaros player Carlos Gomez (left), Mexican international Jared Borgetti and Arizona head coach Petar Draksin pose for a picture after Cruz Azul and the Sahuaros played an exhibition game in 2007. Photo courtesy of Arizona Sahuaros.
One of the keys to his team’s success over the years has been treating players right. Draksin knows that not being in a league, his players might not get as much exposure playing for the Sahuaros, so he helps players find homes with other teams, even though it hurts his squad to lose key members of his team. He currently has players suiting up for PDL teams like 2009 Open Cup entrant Orange County Blue Star and the PDL champion Thunder Bay Chill. Probably their highest-profile alumni is Roger Espinoza, the Ohio State University standout who currently plays for the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer, as well as the Honduras National Team.
The 2009 roster features a variety of players, ranging from former professionals to local youth players.
The strength of the team is the defense, led by goalkeeper Brad Swenby from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After a few seasons as the backup for the Minnesota Thunder of the USL First Division, he is playing for Arizona and is keeping an eye out for a USL job. In front of him is veteran Carlos Gomez, former Cincinnati Kings defender Jake Slemker and promising young outside back, Nick Sykes.
On the attacking side of the ball the Sahuaros return a veteran with Dominic Papa who scored a pair of goals for the club in the 2006 Open Cup. Phillipe Garre (Gonzaga University) and Imad Id-Deen, who played for Banat Arsenal (USASA Region IV) during the 2007 tournament, will also factor into the offense.
Playing a fellow amateur club in the opening round is always better than playing a professional team, especially an amateur team that they know.
“We’re very familiar with the El Paso Patriots franchise and their style of play,” said Draksin. “We feel that we have a chance to win on Tuesday.”