After six weeks on the road, midfielder Erik Virgen and his FC Tucson teammates are glad to be home.
The Men in Black will host Orlando City B Saturday at 7:30 p.m., in the first of a three-game homestand at Kino North Stadium.
Travel is part of professional sports at all levels, but FC Tucson’s experience was particularly extreme. After beating Toronto FC II in Tucson on July 3, the Men in Black traveled to Lansing, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Madison, Wisconsin; Frisco, Texas; and Statesboro, Georgia. The team’s record during that stretch — 1-1-4, with two of the draws coming in the last two matches — is even stranger.
Virgen, 19, knows the reality of soccer. It’s taken him from Utah to Tucson to Casa Grande to Albuquerque and back to the Old Pueblo.
Virgen was born in Sandy, Utah, and started playing soccer at age 5 in local leagues on Sundays. He eventually moved into club soccer before moving out of state. At age 11, Virgen and his parents relocated to Tucson. Virgen joined the Fort Lowell Gunners club team.
“It was very different,” Virgen said. “Utah’s cold and when I got here it was really hot. I had to adjust to that and I felt like I was always winded at first, because of the heat, when I first started playing.”
A few years later, Virgen reconnected with Utah — in a way. The teenager was accepted into the Real Salt Lake Arizona Academy, which was then based in Casa Grande. There, he served as a three-time RSL USSDA captain.
Virgen also competed for the U.S. U15 and U18 national teams and was named Generation Adidas MVP in 2014.
Even though the climate in the two states is different, Virgen said the soccer communities are fairly similar.
“The difference is maybe that in Utah there’s a lot of white people and here there’s a lot of Hispanics,” Virgen said. “I was already used to that because I played in the Mexican teams when I was young, but when I moved up to club (in Utah) most of my team was white. I think I was the only Mexican on my team at one point.”
Virgen said he never felt out of place in Utah. But moving to Tucson may have been what made a difference in his playing career.
“I like the level here in Tucson,” Virgen said. “I think it helped me develop a lot more than I was developing in Utah. I had the right personnel too … they put me on the right path to where I am right now.”
Virgen graduated from the RSL Academy, then committed to play at the University of New Mexico. There was drama almost from the start.
Virgen had heard that the Lobos were thinking of dropping men’s soccer, along with a few other programs. His college coach initially assured him the program would be fine.
By the end of Virgen’s freshman season, the program was no more. Virgen contacted several other schools about transferring, but ultimately decided to jump-start his professional career by joining FC Tucson. So far, Virgen has played 617 minutes in eight matches — seven of them starts. He has one assist.
“It was pretty difficult at times because I didn’t know where I was going to be or anything,” Virgen said. “I couldn’t picture myself going elsewhere — I really liked it there. But things happen and I’m here now. I’m here with my family — this is the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Virgen’s goal is to eventually get to Europe. He’s been a longtime fan of the Champions League and English Premier League, and playing there is a goal. First, though, Virgen is going to compete for his adopted hometown’s team.
“It’s going to take some time —I know it is,” Virgen said. “Whether I go to the USL Championship or MLS, little by little. Baby steps.”