The soccer delegation recently visited Hermosillo, Sonora, in its bid to solidify support for the upcoming Desert Diamond Cup and major league play overall. The group included, from front, Chris Keeney, Nelson Rodriguez, J. Felipe Garcia, Greg Foster and Larissa Valenzuela.


It was a sunny morning in Hermosillo, and FC Tucson's Greg Foster was nervous.

He was wishing he spoke Spanish and fretting something might get lost in translation.

He had trekked to Hermosillo, a gritty baseball town and the capital of Sonora, to pitch soccer in Tucson. Foster is hoping thousands of fans in Sonora will cross through our checkpoints, ignoring the heated rhetoric and divisive border politics, to support next month's Desert Diamond Cup. The future of professional soccer here - an MLS tournament and the survival of FC Tucson - likely hinges on it.

"I think the starting point for us is here in Hermosillo, Mexico, for out-of-town guests," he told me during breakfast Monday.

Monday's press conference was at a children's charity in downtown Hermosillo. Foster and a host of others, including Major League Soccer's Nelson Rodriguez, sat before the cameras. A radio announcer grabbed the microphone and acted out a quick play-by-play, capping it off with a "Gooooooollllllllllll!"

It was time for Foster to take his shot.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the 44-year-old attorney and co-founder of FC Tucson, our new development-league team, boarded a shuttle bound for Hermosillo. Chris Keeney, a managing member of FC Tucson, and Marian Abram, the team's attorney, also piled in for the five-hour drive. So did J. Felipe Garcia of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, who organized the trip.

The Desert Diamond Cup is now roughly four weeks out and will feature four MLS teams - the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Real Salt Lake - in a round-robin tournament. Keeney and Foster, two of FC Tucson's four owners, were dealing with this looming deadline in different ways.

Keeney, 41, who has worked in Major League Soccer before, swam freely in the waters of unabashed optimism, envisioning sellouts and one day turning our new local team into an MLS club. The tournament will fund FC Tucson, so if the event takes off - sellouts, TV rights, an Adidas sponsorship - maybe FC Tucson will, too. Or so the thinking goes.

"The Desert Diamond Cup will put on this huge buzz for soccer," Keeney said as we zipped past the mine tailings along I-19. "The pace that we are on is incredible."

Foster was positive, too, but he was sweating what he called "existential barriers" to their soccer dream: Will the field at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium be good enough? Will fans turn out? Will the support carry over to FC Tucson? Where will FC Tucson play this summer? He later said he thought we had two shots to impress the MLS.

The drive was uneventful and the conversation jumped from earthquakes to soccer diplomacy to soccer fans rioting.

To summarize: Everyone loved soccer. About 24 miles outside Hermosillo, the group began talking about its message. It would be a simple one, tying Tucson and Hermosillo into one region. There would be an effort to connect with youth soccer in Hermosillo.

"You are part of who we are," said Garcia, a loquacious man and the group's guide. "We are embracing you. We are celebrating fútbol in Tucson."

There is truth to this. Foster thinks roughly half of the 10,000 fans at the final for last year's Desert Cup were from Mexico. In 2008, Mexican visitors spent $2.7 billion in Arizona, numbers from the University of Arizona show.

Between the economy and recent politics, those numbers are probably down. But Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, a researcher at the UA's Border Economy Program, told me the connection remains strong.

"Sonora is a major source of visitors, and, really, we need to pay special attention to these guys," she said.

Then she asked: "I just sort of heard the news that David Beckham is coming to town?"

This is the question on everyone's mind, but what soccer fans really should be asking is: Are the fields at Kino good enough for Beckham's team, the LA Galaxy?

Check back next month. But fields are just as big of a deal as Mexican fans. The two serve as pivot points for the future of soccer here.

FC Tucson is paying $110,000 to convert the baseball field at Kino Stadium into a soccer field. That works for now, but long-term the MLS needs a stadium and fields to accommodate 10 teams.

"We can't live in a state of conversion forever," Rodriguez, the MLS executive, told me over a steak dinner.

Rodriguez had flown into Hermosillo to help with the press conference before traveling on to Mexico City. Over dinner, he talked about Tucson's soccer prospects.

"Tucson, by its nature, is going to be an underdog," Rodriguez said of our chances of landing our own MLS team.

But a preseason training hub? Why not?

The success of last year's hastily organized Desert Cup blindsided the league, and now officials want to see what Foster, Keeney and Co. can do with more lead time.

"We want it to be a fairy-tale ending," Rodriguez later told me. "We want it to end as a success story."

So back to the presser. The announcer shouts "Goooollll!" Foster and Keeney make their pitch. They are gracious, saying they want this to be the region's tournament and for FC Tucson to be the region's team. They want to build a connection with Hermosillo soccer.

The media picks up the buzz.

"I wish I spoke Spanish," a relieved Foster said afterward. "But otherwise I think it went well."

Heading home, Foster and Keeney talked marketing.

Outside of Nogales, we drove past a soccer game. The sun was setting behind a group of kids playing on a dirt field. They played with lightness and joy, a reminder that a fairy-tale ending to this story will include both sides of the border.

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or