Part of being a developmental team means that if any of your players are doing well, they’re probably not going to be around long enough to help you win many games.
FC Tucson, eliminated from the playoffs with two games remaining following Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Greenville Triumph SC, could see as many as five players re-join Phoenix Rising FC for its chase for the USL Championship title.
“Right now,” said FC Tucson head coach Darren Sawatzky, “it’s all about Rising.”
It’s not quite The Show — that would be Rising’s Major League Soccer affiliate, Los Angeles FC — but with a 20-match winning streak that was just snapped and a raucous crowd behind them, Phoenix can rightfully claim to be one of the top teams in the country, regardless of division.
These continuous player comings and goings have prevented FC Tucson from finding consistency throughout the season, which is reflected by their seventh-place standing in the 10-team USL League One heading into Friday night’s penultimate match of the 2019 season. The Men in Black will play host to Forward Madison FC at 7:30 p.m. inside Kino North Stadium.
Sawatzky never hesitates to reiterate that his role is to develop players ahead of winning games, even in the club’s first season as a fully professional organization.
That mission won’t stop now.
“Part of pro soccer is, now it’s time to start fighting for spots for next year, look to develop and finish strong,” he said.
One of those players who will be sticking around is Tucsonan Erik Virgen, who spent the second half of the season carving out a starting role in defensive midfield.
Virgen, more of an elegant passer than a tenacious ball-winner, tries to model his game after the great Spanish midfield metronome, Xavi Hernández, formerly of FC Barcelona.
Virgen’s father, Rodrigo, played professionally in Mexico for Atlas FC.
“My dad always mentors me after games and guide me with my movement, how to move with the ball, where to pick up the ball,” Virgen said.
In just 13 games this season, Virgen is tied for the team-lead with 21 key passes — a pass that leads to a shooting attempt — and has completed 91.4% of his passes, including 94.8% in his defensive half.
Statistics don’t always tell the entire story in soccer, but they do highlight what Virgen is good at — keeping possession for his team and helping them move from defense to attack.
He credits Sawatzky for having the confidence in him to play to his strengths, but said the coaching staff tries to urge him to be more assertive on the offensive end instead of always playing the safest pass.
“He’s a winner, he always wants to win and that’s the mentality he’s put in my head,” Virgen said. “I’m always trying to find a way to help the team win, and I don’t always have the answers.”
If he starts to find some of those answers, perhaps one day, he, too, will be one of the ones moving up a level — just as his club wants.