PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - To be a success you have to have that drive, even if that drive takes seven hours to get to Los Angeles.
FC Tucson, the city's new semipro soccer team, will become quite familiar with that drive. In its first season in the USL Premier Development League, the collection of college players and their more experienced brethren, along with a staff of seven, must make the journey five times in the next two months.
The team opens its home season Saturday, but it has already played two emotional away matches. The second trek was a sometimes grueling, sometimes hilarious road trip to the L.A. area to face the Pali Blues on Saturday.
From a roster of 26 players that don't receive a nickel to play, only 14 were available for the trip. Nine of them, and their soft-spoken coach, were picked up at stops along the way.
In a 34-hour journey full of logistics, tactics and semantics, the team must overcome playing not long after sitting for hours in a van, replace a key component on the field and find inspiration when its back is to the wall.
FINDING A LEFT BACK
A soccer-ball-size sun peers over the Rincon Mountains as FC Tucson begins its journey to Southern California. Two white vans - one carrying five staff members and another with six players - pull out of the Kino Stadium Sports Complex's north parking lot at 6:06 a.m.
Jon Pearlman, the associate head coach and one of the team owners, takes some sarcastic ribbing for not bringing along the seminal, campy soccer movie "Victory," starring Pele and Sylvester Stallone. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "Moneyball" will have to do.
The first stop is Ina Road exit on I-10 to pick up forward Donny Toia. It's worth it as Toia brings along giant plastic bags crammed with brownies and Rice Krispies treats made by his mother.
As the journey resumes, Jon and assistant coach Jeff Rogers sort out and double-check the player cards. Each player must have one of these credit-card-type IDs; it's the Social Security card of soccer. If they don't have the card, the player might not be able to play, and the team will likely be fined. The player cards were left at the hotel last week in Fresno, causing Jon much anguish and the match to be delayed about 15 minutes.
As the two vehicles approach Picacho Peak, the 10-seat players van looks like no one is in it because all six players are lying down while there's space available. There won't be anywhere near as much room when they pick up four more players in Phoenix.
The staff van is being driven by media relations manager H. Jose Bosch. The passengers are Jon, Jeff and assistant coaches Paul-David Seldis and Henry "Yoshi" Brauner.
Around 8 a.m., the vans stop at midfielder Reid Schmitt's apartment complex to pick up the Phoenix four.
The left back position is a concern. Michael Kraus, who started at left back in last week's 2-1 loss to Fresno, has a conflict with his other job and cannot make the trip. In semipro soccer, the players must have other jobs to pay the bills.
This early in the season teams in the PDL have an additional challenge: Some college players are still in school and not available yet.
Jon, who also serves as general manager, must make do with a 14-man squad this week, meaning his bench has just two outfield players and a backup goalkeeper, because 12 college players have yet to arrive.
The next stop is Indio, and the team heads for Subway.
Conor Spence waits while others order. Like most of his teammates, he's wearing a red polo shirt with the FC Tucson crest that seems to radiate in the blazing sun. "I'd rather not be traveling the same day of the match, but it's what we have to do," says the defender, 26, who played at Central Connecticut State. "I'm a little bit older than some of these guys and the body takes a while to recover."
After their tanks are filled with subs to the tune of $127.63 and each van tank is filled with over $60 in gasoline, it's back on the road.
Just after 3 p.m., the team arrives at the Hacienda Hotel in El Segundo. It's a busy, old-school hotel with a couple of large Mexican-style courtyards.
LITTLE TIME TO BE LAX
After grabbing a little rest and breaking off into groups for dinner, the team meets in the lobby at 5 p.m. The team, which now includes coach Rick Schantz and four players who were already in California, seems rather relaxed.
The half-hour trip to the stadium goes up the Pacific Coast Highway. The van comes out of a tunnel and the glistening ocean comes into view. Jose says it's the first time he's seen the Pacific.
Little time to enjoy the view, though, as the vans turn away from the blue water and toward the green turf of the Palisades Charter High School stadium, also know as the Stadium By the Sea.
The team heads to the "Lax Shack." At the end of the straightaway of Carl Lewis Track (the nine-time Olympic gold medalist once lived in the area) is a building that would be called nondescript if it weren't for the large words "Lax Shack" painted in graffiti style on the entrance wall.
There are a couple of benches not long enough to hold more than three players. Some of the ceiling titles are busted out, perhaps from lacrosse sticks gone wild, and there are simple lockers emblazoned with names such as "ANGELICH" and "GHAFOORZADEH" - apparently members of the Pali High lacrosse team.
Jon eases the tension by bellowing "Whatever you do, you've got to stop GHAFOORZADEH." Everyone laughs while putting on practice gear.
A trip to the bathroom means walking about 50 yards, going back up through the stands and then walking another 50 yards to the public facility.
Rick, who joined the team at the hotel after spending the last few days on a field trip with kids from Imago Dei Middle School, where he is the assistant principal, says: "Other teams are going to be blown away when they come to our place."
After shooting practice, all the players return to the "Lax Shack" and Rick tells them to "Go ahead and get your jerseys on" with kickoff less than 20 minutes away.
Rick says the team formation will be 4-5-1 and players "need to communicate about what the opponent's doing." After his tactical comments, it's time for inspiration.
"Each team presents new challenges," he says. "One, the field is a little bit bigger, but it's a synthetic surface. We're on the road. We've got all these things that mean nothing once the referee blows the whistle. And I can only tell you this, what I'm most proud of about this group of players is that we work hard. … Leave everything out there because it does no good to come off the field 1-1 or to lose 2-1 and you still have energy and you feel like, 'I could have done a little bit more.'"
This is the first of two stories on the FC Tucson semipro soccer team. Today: Get to know Tucson's newest team through a road trip. Saturday: The team bonds on the road and relishes playing at home.
• What: FC Tucson vs. Southern California Seahorses
• When: 7 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Kino Sports Complex North Field No. 5
• Tickets: fctucson.com and 1-877-840-0457