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Soccer surprise: Sport on rise in Arizona after women’s World Cup win

PHOENIX — Soccer is becoming more popular in Arizona, thanks in part to two women with roots in the state winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“Soccer in this state is one of those things where it may seem few and far between but it’s not,” Garrett Cleverly of said. “There’s a lot of soccer fans and you would be surprised by that.”

The women’s final between the United States and Japan was watched by a record 26.7 million people in the nation, topping the MLB, NHL and NBA finals. Arizona soccer fans certainly contributed to that number, watching two of their own in Julie Johnston and Sydney Leroux.

“You can go to a lot of bars on the weekend on Saturday mornings — pretty early — and you can watch soccer,” Cleverly said. “It’s definitely great to see the growth of even the fan base here in Arizona.”

Johnston, from Mesa, and transplant Leroux aren’t the only players with ties to Arizona in the soccer limelight.

Brad Evans and Ventura Alvarado, both Arizona natives, were named to the U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the Gold Cup, a tournament held every two years to decide the champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

A Gold Cup doubleheader — that did not feature the United States but Mexico — at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale sold out over the weekend.

Arizona is now home to a specialized soccer academy for Real Salt Lake. The Casa Grande facility houses 50 teenagers full-time and trains them to transition to the professional game.

Two Arizona players from the academy signed recently for two of the largest and most popular English clubs in the world. Josh Doughty, who went to Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix, was signed by Manchester United while Brooks Lennon, who played at Brophy High School, is reportedly headed to Liverpool.

Cleverly also attributed the presence of Arizona United, a professional team based in Scottsdale, as a big contributor to the sport’s growing popularity.

KTAR’s Brian Rackham contributed to this report.