Sporting AZ FC poses for a team photo before a recent UPSL game. Photo: Sporting AZ FC
Gilbert, Arizona is getting noticed for much more than the heat and scenery. The town is home to Sporting Arizona Football Club, or better known to the local fans as Sporting AZ FC.
The team that traces its roots back to 1989 when they were founded as the Phoenix Hearts in the Southwest Independent Soccer League. The team played under a few different names in the 1990s (Arizona Cotton, Arizona Phoenix) before joining the USL’s D3 Pro League in 1997 as the Arizona Sahuaros. The Sahuaros made six US Open Cup appearances (1998, 1999, 2006, 2008-10), advancing four times in 10 games. After six years in the D3 Pro League, the Sahuaros transitioned into an amateur team where they were a founding member of the NPSL in 2003 (originally called the Men’s Premier Soccer League). The team was an on-again, off-again member of the NPSL until the club when on hiatus in 2011.
The Sahuaros were revived in 2014 when Barry Rybicki and former Sahuaros assistant coach Tim Marchisotto bought the team and the club played an exhibition game schedule from 2014-16 before re-brandeding as Sporting AZ FC and joining the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) at the end of 2016.
Sporting began play in the UPSL in the spring of 2017 and have built some momentum both on and off the field. The team splits their home games between Highland High School and Campo Verde High School, both of them located in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert.
The caliber of this team is not to be taken lightly, with head coach Aidan Davison, who has a strong resume from his playing days. Davison was a goalkeeper who represented Northern Ireland at the international level and played for a number of English clubs such as Bolton Wanderers, Millwall, and Bradford City. With his professional experience, he makes sure that his men are at their best to perform on the field.
On this particular day, practice at Chandler-Gilbert Community College starts promptly at 6:45 a.m. and goes on till 9 a.m. With the scorching Arizona heat, these men are playing at full effort. Sweat dripping from their faces, dives and kicks, not one beat is skipped.
When it comes to Sporting AZ FC and their mission, Davison is clear when he says, “Simply to improve soccer in this area, offer a quality product for the community, spring ball players at the professional level, and provide a really solid professional club so everyone can be proud of it.”
The team has returning players under coach Davison, but they’re new to the Sporting AZ family. With his dynamic coaching style, the team fuses well as if they’ve been a solid unit for years.
Players come from all around the globe to be apart of this team. 27 year-old Costa Rican native, Alejandro Aguilar has been in the United States since 2010 and playing for Sporting AZ for the last two years.
“This team has a good organization and a great mission, that’s what called my attention to them,” said Aguilar, who like other Spanish-speaking players, hasn’t let a language barrier hold him back in blending in with the team.
One player they will be missing from last season is goalkeeper Jake Rybicki, the son of Sporting AZ majority owner Barry Rybicki. Rybicki recently signed with Malta First Division club Hibernians FC, who just advanced to the second round of the UEFA Champions League qualifying.
The opening round match between Sporting and FC Arizona has an extra layer of drama, aside from the fact that the two teams are separated by less than 20 miles. Coach Davison used to coach the team and many of the players on the Sporting roster were on the FC Arizona team that finished the regular season with an undefeated record (12-0-4) in their inaugural season in the NPSL. Mo Salama, Jon Guse, Alejandro Aguilar, David Paul, Kenny McAvoy, Paul LaMarca, and Andrew Weber, who was part of the 2015 MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers.
This team has the potential to be a well-oiled machine by the time they make their US Open Cup debut against FC Arizona (NPSL) in the First Round on May 9. With all the right pieces working in unison, coach Davison expects to make a run in the tournament to put Arizona soccer on the map.