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Phoenix Poised to Lead Youth Soccer Development in Arizona

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 05/04/20, 5:26PM EDT


Experience, partnerships forged by Rising FC gives club chance to provide a path for state’s elite players

Phoenix Rising FC and Head Coach Rick Schantz are poised to lead the way in Arizona youth soccer development, with Schantz himself a former standout as a young player in Tucson. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC

PHOENIX – There was a time, when current Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz was forging his own path in the youth soccer ranks, that Arizona youth soccer was among the best in the country.

“When I was 14, we won 10 of the 12 regional championships. We used to beat Southern California all the time,” Schantz told the Arizona Republic’s Rob Kleifeld, reminiscing on his days as part of CISCO Soccer Club. “Something happened along the road, in Arizona, where we didn’t continue to improve or have something to aspire to.”

However, things are now beginning to look up once more and Schantz’s Rising FC is a big reason why. Now in its fourth full year under the leadership of an ownership group led by Governor Berke Bakay, the youth network and academy program Phoenix has built is already changing the landscape of player development in the Copper State for the better.

And, as the landscape of youth soccer changes with the dissolution of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy two weeks ago, Rising FC will be at the forefront in Arizona as the most high-profile soccer organization in the state.

“It’s the beginning of an incredibly exciting period for not only soccer in America, but certainly for young players and professional clubs, and Phoenix Rising is no different in that regard,” Rising FC Director of Soccer Development Steve Cooke told Kleifeld. “Whatever decisions are made by people in the upper echelons of management in this country, we will be ready [and] fully prepared to exceed the standards set.”

Cooke returned to Phoenix this offseason after his stint as Head Coach at fellow Championship club OKC Energy FC. The Sheffield, England native began his career on this side of the Atlantic in the city, working for the Sereno SC and SC Del Sol youth clubs before making the move up to Major League Soccer in 2010 with the Colorado Rapids. There, he served first as the Rapids Development Academy’s Alliance Technical Director before becoming a First Team assistant and interim Head Coach at the club before heading to Oklahoma City.

Goalkeeper Landon Carter was signed by Rising FC to a USL Academy contract for the 2020 season in March, offering the chance to test himself at a higher level of competition. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC

That experience at all levels has given Cooke a deep understanding of not only what it takes to maximize a player’s chances to achieve the goal of a successful professional career, but also the realities of the sport and the need to make sure every player has a chance at future success.

“When it comes to being a professional player, you’re only looking at a tiny percentage who will actually make it there and stick there,” Cooke told Kleifeld. “We’re very fortunate to be able to put a program together that is inclusive and enables every single player to reach their full potential. At the end of the day, the players are always the protagonist. They’re always the ones who are in charge [of their future].” 

And whether that future lies in the colors of Rising FC, with the organization’s USL League One club FC Tucson, or in the college ranks, the aspirational power the club brings for the 6,000-plus players currently attacked to Rising FC’s organization directly or through its network of youth partners is one Schantz believes can’t be underestimated.

“[It] creates goals, vision, passion and kind of a love for the game that’s immeasurable,” Schantz told Kleifeld. “People now have a team and a state to watch and learn [from] and aspire to play for one day.”

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