LAS VEGAS — The precipice that FC Tucson sits on is like being on the bridge at nearby Hoover Dam.
On one side is the glimmering water of massive Lake Mead. On the other side is a 726-foot drop.
A win tonight in a first-round playoff game in Sin City would bring FC Tucson its first postseason victory and, likely, a chance to host the following two rounds next week.
A loss in the 6:30 p.m. match against L.A. Misioneros FC on the UNLV campus would quickly end a season that included a division title, 11 wins in 14 league matches, a dazzling tally of 35 goals and a record single-match attendance.
FC Tucson’s first taste of the postseason came in 2012, its inaugural season in the USL Premier Development League. It ended abruptly with a 2-1 loss in the first round.
Coach Rick Schantz says the 2014 version of the men in black is different.
“I think the team is prepared,” Schantz said. “I’m mostly confident and excited by the fact that there’s this sense of determination.
“That first year we made the playoffs I think it was the season winding down and players wanted to go back to their schools. But this group is very different. They’re talking about playing for two more weeks. They’re not talking about winning or losing (today), but winning five straight games. I can see it in their attitudes during training.
“They’re fired up and ready to go. They want to win this whole thing.”
FC Tucson midfielder Ricardo Velazco, the team’s leading scorer with seven league goals this season, can put it more succinctly.
“All of the players are ready. We’re all anxious to play,” said Velazco, a Casa Grande native who played at Tucson Soccer Academy and Sunnyside High School.
“ ‘Bring the next game home,’ that’s the game plan. If we can get this win, we might host.”
FC Tucson is one of three teams bidding to host the USL PDL Western Conference semifinals and final that will be held Friday and next Saturday. The top team in the conference, which was FC Tucson with 34 points, has the right of first refusal to host those two rounds. A lower-ranking team can only be selected if it puts in a better bid than FC Tucson.
“The organization feels very strongly about our bid,” said FC Tucson chief business officer Chris Keeney. “We think we’re in a great position to host the Western Conference playoffs, assuming we beat the Misioneros in Las Vegas. That has to do with the great record we’ve had this year, the fantastic crowds we’ve had this year and the facilities that Kino provides. Everything is strong in our favor.”
But first comes the Las Vegas obstacle — a foe from the past. Before changing divisions this season, FC Tucson competed in the same division with L.A. Misioneros FC in 2012 and 2013. The first three matches were 1-1 draws. The fourth was a 4-0 victory for FC Tucson.
Even though they didn’t meet this season, Schantz and his team are familiar with the Misioneros’ style.
“The Misioneros played on Fourth of July against BYU, and the game was streamed so we were able to watch that,” Schantz said. “Their style of play is that they like to keep possession. Their backs are very involved in their attack. It looks like a 4-5-1, but when they have the ball it’s more like a 3-5-2 system. I would almost equate it somewhat to the way Mexico played in the World Cup, where you had center backs that could move the ball and they were very technical.”
“L.A. struggled with BYU when BYU got out quick and went at them. One of the things we are trying to stress is good discipline defensively and to stay compact. When we have our opportunities, we have to go fast. We have to capitalize. We know we are going to get chances to score, and we can’t leave them on the table.”
That’s the true sign of a winner in this town, knowing when to not leave anything on the table.