Desert Diamond Cup

FC Tucson’s Elijah Galbraith-Knapp, left, and Gabe Silveira try to block Chris Rolfe of the Chicago Fire from the ball during the second half of the sides’ Desert Diamond Cup match.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

The organizers of the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup treat the event as a work in progress.

That progress included a few firsts this year.

For the first time, the tournament was held in a soccer-specific stadium. In a couple other new twists, the format was expanded to six teams and the match days went from doubleheaders to tripleheaders.

The fourth annual version of the event, which wrapped up a month of Major League Soccer training in the Old Pueblo, gave soccer fans more teams, more matches and more intimacy.

And it looks to have pleased its occupants.

“From the standpoint of operating MLS preseason and growing the event, I think this was a huge success and the facilities are very central to that,” said Greg Foster, a managing partner of FC Tucson, which organized the MLS training. “We had feedback from just about every team indicating that they would come back to Tucson. Some would like to commit to multiple-year terms here.”

The new centerpiece of the facilities, Kino Sports Complex North Stadium, provided a more raucous atmosphere and gave the faithful a closer look at the teams than in the previous years when the Desert Diamond Cups were held at Kino Stadium.

The front row of the North Stadium grandstand is a few feet from the team benches and the concourse set-up lets fans interact on the same level — literally — with their favorites, getting autographs and taking pictures with players after the matches.

Players and coaches were often sitting in the grandstand, elbow to elbow with fans, when their teams weren’t in action.

“This was our first opportunity to really operate the North Stadium. It’s really kind of thrilling to play soccer games in a soccer-specific stadium,” Foster said. “The fan experience is much better than it would be in a stadium converted from a different sport. The sightlines are better. The sounds are better.

“The opportunity for streaming (games on the MLS website) is much better too. We were able to stream back toward the grandstand, and that created just a gorgeous optic for the fans who were watching the games” on the website.

A more syndetic atmosphere and more matches didn’t equate to more people in the seats, though.

The largest crowd of the month came during one of the Desert Friendlies before the Desert Diamond Cup. A crowd of 1,712 watched the Feb. 8 doubleheader that included a rivalry match between Portland and Seattle. The final day of the cup, which was the victim of rain and wind throughout the entire day, drew 1,604 hardy fans.

In the previous two years, the Desert Diamond Cups drew single-day crowds that reached 4,528, 8,472 and a record 10,172.

This season, there were also other bumps along the way. While the food sold at the venue was well received, the concession stand ran out of Pepsi and ice for one of the tripleheaders.

“I think that as we start to work with larger and larger crowds (at North Stadium), there are certainly ways that we can see to improve the fan experience — ways to manage parking that are a little bit better, ways to deliver things like concessions that are little more efficient. We will be working on those aspects of the fan experience,” Foster said.

This year’s experience included more fans that traveled from MLS cities to get an early look at their teams.

“We’ve started to create an awareness for the home markets of the teams that are visiting us that preseason is happening, that it is a spectator event and that it’s something worth traveling to see,” Foster said. “The response out of a number of the markets was very good for really the first year that we’ve been able to make that effort. That’s definitely an area we’re targeting for growth going forward.”

It appears Foster and the other organizers are not about to give in to growing pains. They announced Tuesday that Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League will arrive later this month to train and play matches at North Stadium.

You can’t stop a work in progress.