PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - For its second match of the season, FC Tucson had to take a seven-hour van ride to the Los Angeles area and then play a match about three hours after arriving.
With a roster limited to 14 players, Tucson's new semipro soccer team took on the Pali Blues last Saturday in a match full of ups and downs. With little rest for the weary, FC Tucson headed home the next morning to complete a 34-hour journey and begin focusing on tonight's home opener.
A fan in the whirlwind
As the team takes the field, a lone figure in the stands raises his "Cactus Pricks" scarf while cheering on the team. Sandro Soler, wearing a Los Angeles Galaxy jersey and a Russian winter hat, says he traveled to Tucson to see the Galaxy play at the Desert Diamond Cup in March. There, he met up with FC Tucson's supporters group, the Cactus Pricks, and picked up the scarf. He decided to drive down from Valencia to watch the match.
He is the FC Tucson fan amid a smattering of about 100 Pali Blues faithful.
In the 25th minute, forward Donny Toia, a former Canyon del Oro High School and Pima College standout, steps up to take a penalty. The Pali keeper guesses the correct way, diving to his right, and pushes the ball away.
At halftime, coach Rick Schantz uses his calm pre-game voice. "First of all, you all have to recognize you're on the road and it's 0-0. "It's not like you're down 3-0 and you should be bitching at each other like you're little children on the field. It's 0-0; you gotta stay composed. … We don't need to win 7-0 or 4-2, OK. One-zero, and we're outta here is going to be just fine."
"We didn't come to this game thinking we're going to put together 65 passes and be Barcelona. That's not who we are. I mean figure that out right now, as a team we are very fast out wide, we've got a strong target player up top, and we're tough as nails."
Down to 10 men after wing Kevin King receives his second yellow card and is sent off early in the second half, FC Tucson withstands numerous Pali chances and manages a counterattack here and there.
In the 83rd minute, Tucson earns a free kick from about 35 yards on the left side. Defender Colin Anderson lofts the ball across the box to Donny, who has a pair of Pali defenders closing in on him.
Donny nods it with his head and sends a high-arching ball back across the goal mouth. Forward Travis Sanchez sees his only opportunity is to try a bicycle kick. He rises, meets it from about 10 yards out and strikes it with his right foot. It whistles into the top left corner before the keeper has time to react.
The team celebrates, running to congratulate Travis, but there's still seven minutes plus stoppage time to get through.
The team survives a couple of flurries before the referee blows his whistle and the 1-0 win means the first win in team history.
It's a historic moment for the franchise. But, perhaps tempered by the exhaustion level of the 11 men in black after an extremely long day and the knowledge that it's just the second match of 16 in the season, the celebration isn't chaotic. But the satisfaction can be seen on their sweat-dripping faces as they walk over and thank their fan, Sandro.
"You stayed disciplined. You stayed together," Rick says. "Everybody worked from start to finish. It's the whole match, it's not any one thing. It's from the start, from the drive out here. Your commitment has been rewarded. … This is going to be one of the most valuable three points you've ever earned."
On the ride back in the staff van, assistant coach Jon Pearlman announces scores from other league matches, everyone chimes in about the best pizza place in Tucson and Colin's effort that night is roundly praised. "He was dynamite," Jon says.
Past and future
The team grabs breakfast Sunday morning and embarks for home just before 9.
Discussion in the staff van makes its way through the past - from the "whatever happened to" stars of North American Soccer League, a professional league that went defunct in the 1980s but inspired many to get into the game, to how little media coverage soccer used to get.
Just a few minutes after informing everyone that Manchester City has scored twice in stoppage time to win the title in England, Jon tries out a chant for FC Tucson fans that he's just penned.
To the tune of "Oh My Darling, Clementine," he sings:
"Father Kino, Father Kino
Will you send your blessing down
We will sing all night for FC Tucson
Kings of soccer in this town"
The players van is more cluttered and noisy than the staff van. Like its inhabitants, it's showing the wear and tear of a hectic last two days.
Defender Kareem Smith asks for the music to be turned up. Team administrator and van driver Bryan Murray complies by adding a few more decibels to Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Welcome to the Jungle."
The 27-year-old Kareem was born in Boston to a Trinidadian father and a Jamaican mother. His experience - he's played six times for the Trinidad and Tobago national team - and calm demeanor help keep the FC Tucson back line together in trying times.
"I don't think it was our best performance," Kareem says of the night before. "It's hard to come off a long bus trip and go play, but we stuck together and worked hard. Kept our focus."
"After coming off the loss in the first game, it was very important. Hopefully, we can build off this for the home opener. I'm actually really excited for this first home one."
• What: FC Tucson vs. Southern California Seahorses
• When: 7 p.m.
• Where: Kino Sports Complex North Field No. 5
• Tickets: fctucson.com and 1-877-840-0457