When you’ve been the longest-lasting franchise in what is otherwise a no-man’s land for high-level soccer and you’re about to go to your fifth US Open Cup in 20 seasons of existence, the American soccer community knows who you are.
Such is the case with the Arizona Sahuaros, a highly regarded USASA club on hiatus for the second straight year from the NPSL. The Sahuaros might be the lonely oasis of soccer in the hot and dusty Arizona desert, but they have two things going for them as they head into the first round of the US Open Cup in 2010: History in the Open Cup and a defense-first mentality that causes opponents fits.
The Sahuaros under first-year coach Orhan Kraja, a native of Albania who has coached third-division football in Italy, have never advanced past the second round of the Open Cup. But their match against the defending PDL champion Ventura County Fusion Tuesday night will mark their third straight Open Cup berth.
Arizona’s roster is always in flux with its mixture of college players trying to stay in shape over the summer, young players trying to stay in the game and advance their careers and experienced veterans who have cut their teeth in higher professional ranks. The Sahuaros are led by veteran goalkeeper Brad Swenby, who has played for the USL’s Minnesota Thunder and commutes to key Sahuaros games from Wisconsin.
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.
Swenby and defender Mike Duhaney, the 1997 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, are expected to be with the club in California when they face the Fusion. Former MLS players Greg Vanney and Mike Munoz have other commitments and will not play.
That said, the Sahuaros bring a young team, for the most part, to Ventura. Those young players, with Swenby the rock in the net, played well enough at the USASA Region IV Cup in Sacramento last month to earn the second and final berth into the US Open Cup from the region, a credit to team president Ali Alexander and GM Mark Nabity for their work and commitment to fielding a competitive team.
The Sahuaros run through the Region IV tournament was a difficult one, finishing 1-1-1 in group play. A 1-0 loss to the Sacramento Gold in their opener forced Arizona to get points in their last two matches. The next match was a 10-1 drubbing of Yakima United, while the last was a 2-2 draw against Doxa Italia.
The nine-goal blowout proved to be the most important result as Arizona tied with three other clubs with four points, as the best second place team would book a place in the semifinals. With a plus-8 goal differencial, the Sahuaros would edge out Doxa-Italia (+6), San Diego Boca FC (+0), and the French Soccer Academy (-2) for a spot in the final four.
In the semifinals, the Sahuaros defeated Real San Jose 2-1 on a pair of goals from Pat Perkins. The second goal appeared to be a handball, but after consulting with the AR, the center ref let the goal stand. Real San Jose pulled one back in the second half but it was too little, too late.
“I think our goalkeeper Brad Swenby was the key to our success this weekend.” said former long-time Sahuaros head coach Petar Draskin. ”A few other players to recognize were Skelly Keller, Mitch Garcia, defenders Chris Green and Brian Green, midfielder Paul La Larva and forward Pat Perkins. This was the youngest team Sahuaros have ever brought to this event. Also, Seth George, a former pro, made his first appearance in a Sahuaros jersey.”
This year, the Arizona Sahuaros have become only the third USASA club to qualify for the US Open Cup three seasons in a row (2008, 2009, 2010). Los Lobos (Oklahoma) qualified from 1997-1999 and Mexico SC qualified four years in a row from 1999-2002.
The Sahuaros have been able to make it hard on PDL and USL teams in past Cups because of their emphasis on defense. Arizona’s belief in a system despite a constantly changing roster is what they claim to be the key to their success, along with playing games throughout Arizona to increase their exposure and tap into young talent from outside greater Phoenix.