TUCSON--- Across Tucson, youth soccer players grows up with aspirations of competing at the professional level. While to some the goal is far-fetched, others look at the feat as a challenge waiting to be conquered.
That opportunity became a reality this year when the local amateur club, FC Tucson, announced its entry into the USL League One.
What does that mean for youth academies in Tucson?
Young academy players now have a direct bridge from youth soccer to the city’s new professional side.
Unbeknownst to 17-year-old goalkeeper Rafael Guerrero and 19-year-old midfielder Erik Virgen, they became two of the first to immediately benefit from professional soccer coming to their backyard.
Virgen, a Tucson native, was a product of the FC Tucson Youth Academy. Commonly referred to as “Gallo”, the 5-foot-9 midfielder was a standout for FCTY from the moment he stepped on the pitch. He then moved on to fellow Southern Arizona youth club, Real Salt Lake- AZ, formerly known as Fort Lowell Soccer Club.
“My time at the RSL Academy is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life,” Virgen said. “When I arrived at the academy at the age of 14, I was so happy to be a part of such a great organization.”
Gallo served as the captain of the RSL-AZ Academy for three consecutive seasons. In 2014, Virgen was named the Generation Adidas Cup MVP. He concluded his prep career by accepting a soccer scholarship to the University of New Mexico.
A proven playmaker, he made 17 appearances and started in ten matches as a true freshman.
The path was set for Virgen.
He was a highly-touted youth product that developed into a Division 1 starter. But Virgen soon ran into an unexpected circumstance.
“Our men’s soccer program was removed due to Title IX,” Virgen said. “It was a heartbreaking moment in my life. We had a great group of guys at New Mexico and were creating something special there.”
He added: “While it was unfortunate that our program was cut, my time at New Mexico was one of the highlights of my life. I learned a lot about myself as an individual during my time there.”
The unexpected move left Virgen at a crossroads. He could transfer to another university and finish out his collegiate career or test the professional waters.
Virgen went for a swim.
“It meant so much to sign with FC Tucson in its first professional season,” he said. “I’ve grown as a player and most importantly an individual in this community. I have a lot of family and friends in the area. They give me a tremendous amount of support.” “I’m going to need that support in order to continue my career here and be as successful as I can be.”
The skilled midfielder hasn’t wasted any time earning minutes for the club since his signing. In four appearances, Gallo has collected one assist, nine tackles, and five created chances.
Fellow FC Tucson teammate, Rafael Guerrero, also has roots in Tucson youth soccer. He spent time in the Tucson Soccer Academy before departing to the RSL Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Despite his travels, Guerreros’s heart always remained in one place.
“Tucson is home for me,” he said. “The moment the club joined USL League One, my former academy coach placed me on a scouting report.” “I’ve always had the desire to grow in the game of soccer and this was the best opportunity to do so.”
Unlike Virgen, Guerrero signed a “development academy” contract. This allows the 17-year-old goalkeeper to remain in compliance with the NCAA guidelines, in case he decides to play college soccer.
While the pro route can serve as an intriguing one, the 6’3 keeper says he will weigh all of his options before making a final decision about going pro.
“I don’t have a definitive plan when it comes to deciding between college and professional soccer,” he said. “I’m going to go with the best option for me when the time comes. I plan on working hard and letting the rest play itself out.”
Similar to his fellow FCTY alum, Guerrero joined the club just a few weeks ago. While he hasn’t registered any minutes to date, Rafa has been in the club’s 18-man lineup for the last four matches.
With the club entering the halfway point of the season, the newly-signed goalkeeper says this time is precious to his overall development.
“I just keep my head down and work hard every day,” he said. “I’m one of the youngest players here so I know if I continue to work hard that I will earn some minutes.”
Both Virgen and Guerrero are just two examples of how direct the line from youth to pro can be. Now with a professional club in Tucson, FCT Head Coach Darren Sawatzky is confident that this is a trend the community can grow accustomed to.
“Rafa and Gallo are two great young players that epitomize what we are trying to accomplish as far as developing players,” Sawatzky explained. “We are a community-oriented club, so the fact that we are developing a pipeline from our youth club to the professional ranks is tremendous.”
On July 3rd, FC Tucson will take on Toronto FC II in its annual Fireworks Spectacular at Kino North Stadium. While the final score remains unknown, one thing is guaranteed on Wednesday night.
Two familiar faces on the sideline that not only represent their hometown.
They represent the future of soccer in Tucson.