Arizona FC lost 3-1 to the Santa Clarita Blue Heat on Saturday afternoon. This placed them fourth in United Women’s Soccer’s West Division, well ahead of the playoff spots.
But with that, Arizona FC made history. They became Arizona’s first semi-professional women’s soccer team and finished a season at the highest level ever played by a women’s team in the state.
In the USA, the hierarchy of professional women’s soccer starts with the National Women’s Soccer League – arguably the best women’s league in the world. Underneath, the USL operates its W-League, a mix of independent clubs and teams affiliated with the USL men’s teams.
But the USL W-League is largely confined to the East Coast, with no active teams west of Kansas City. This makes the UWS the second most important league behind the NWSL for the entire western half of the country.
Arizona FC, which plays home games at Bell Bank Park in Mesa, made the leap to the UWS this spring and came out of the all-amateur Women’s Premier Soccer League.
“WPSL started adding a lot of youth players to their roster, which we didn’t think was very competitive,” said FC Arizona manager Tara Koleski. “We beat El Paso 10-0 last year. We just had one really hard fought game. We really wanted to get more high-level college players. … So we decided to join UWS because it’s a higher level and there are more competitive players.”
However, the UWS season began in mid-May, just over a month after Arizona FC decided to take the plunge. That presented a number of challenges, both in terms of line-up and planning – the team had to play three sets of games in a row in a crowded schedule.
Koleski and her staff cast a wide net, utilizing connections to local club and college coaches, as well as tips from insiders in local co-ed and women’s recreational leagues. The club recruits primarily from three groups: Arizona natives who now play college football elsewhere, players at local colleges, and new Division I players now residing in the Valley.
However, relying so heavily on collegiate players comes at a price. Many of these players won’t be out of school until June, meaning they miss the start of the season. Also, Koleski doesn’t want to overwork her and leave her exhausted for her college season. Combined with the difficult working hours of older players, this means the club is limited to two training sessions per week.
There were other challenges too. Three of the team’s top defenders suffered injuries during the midseason. Two players tore their ACLs. And one standout – Meredith Manley – had to leave midseason after taking a job in research and development with the San Francisco 49ers.
“We have working women,” Koleski said. “One of our players works for Boeing. She could not promise part of the trip. It’s always mixed at the moment. So next year we have to plan a little differently.”
Nevertheless, Koleski records the first season as a success. The club won three of their five home games and ended the season with an even goal difference.
And for college players, some of Arizona FC’s opponents offered valuable learning experiences. With no professional women’s league in Canada, the Calgary Foothills – the best team in the West Division – feature Canadian players with World Cup and Olympic experience. Santa Clarita has players on some of the top collegiate teams in the country, as well as two members of the Jamaica national team.
Arizona FC couldn’t reach that level of prestige this season – despite having players from schools like LSU, Wisconsin, Creighton and Marquette.
“They pit these conferences against UWS and it’s a whole different ball game,” Koleski said. “You are talking about internationally experienced players. Players who have represented their country in the Olympic Games before. Undoubtedly, it’s a faster game, a higher quality game.”
Ultimately, Koleski’s vision is for Arizona FC to join the USL W-League (Phoenix Rising does not currently have a women’s team). The league is currently going through its first westward expansion, with clubs in Oakland, Stockton and Spokane scheduled to start play in 2023 and 2024 respectively.
In the short term, Koleski wants Arizona FC to grow into UWS and become even more competitive in its second season in the league.
“I’m an Arizona native,” Koleski said, “so if we can start bringing women’s football here, and do it at a high level, women’s football, that’s great.”
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @theo_mackie.