TEMPE, Ariz. — The first hint that I didn’t belong came when they were handing out jerseys.
Arizona United had 110 players at its open soccer tryout. I was given No. 110.
Based on the countless missed touches, turnovers, lack of spatial awareness and one badly whiffed header, the number should have been much, much higher.
“You looked pretty good out there,” United general manager Kevin Stevenson said.
Either he was being nice or was too focused on the legitimate players to notice my flailing.
Whatever the case, it was clear the talent level on the three practice fields was well beyond a middle-aged man clinging to delusions that once-average athletic skills were still there.
These guys were good and they only had a shot at trying out for Arizona United. There were no guarantees they’d ever play for the state’s only soccer team.
Arizona United Soccer Club is one of 24 teams in the United Soccer League, which formed in 2011 in a merger of two existing leagues. The USL formed a partnership in 2013 with Major League Soccer, the highest level of North American soccer. Each major league team has an affiliate and can send players down or bring them up, like minor leagues in other sports.
Arizona United joined just before the 2014 season, when local advertising executive Kyle Eng bought the team after Phoenix FC lost its USL rights. The club recently signed an affiliation agreement with FC Dallas of the MLS.
“The league is growing and the level (of play) is growing,” said Michael Dellorusso, in his second season as Arizona United’s coach. “Everything is correlated to the MLS, how they’re starting to compete with other countries faster than anyone would have thought. There’s a trickle-down effect now. It’s hard for guys to come out of college and go to the MLS, so we’re the next step for it.”
Because Eng purchased the team just before the season, the 2014 tryouts were put together quickly. Still, a couple of players parlayed the tryout into a chance to join Arizona United for training camp.
With more time to prepare, this year’s tryout was more organized and drew a wide range of players.
While some of us at the back end had no shot, 17 players were invited from the tryout to training camp, including five who made a strong impression with the coaches last year.
The players were split into three fields. The top players were on the middle field and featured crisp passing, impressive ball skills, orchestrated attacks.
The other fields had a few players just as talented who played in college or on professional teams previously — one guy scored a goal on a ridiculous bicycle kick. Mixed in were guys who were essentially high-end rec players and a few who were just there for the experience.
Among those on our field was Eddie Hertsenberg, a 28-year-old who played two seasons with the USL’s Dayton Dutch Lions and recently moved to Arizona.
“It was on par with what you expect on a tryout like this,” Hertsenberg said. “I just wanted to come out and see if I could still play. When there’s a tryout like this, there’s some discrepancies (in talent) sometimes.”
A huge one, in my case.
I had not played an organized soccer game in 30 years and it was apparent on my first touch of the 20-minute session, when I tried a back-heel pass to a streaking teammate. I couldn’t pull that off when I was playing, so of course it trickled weakly to the defender behind me.
It didn’t get much better after that, the barely-in-shape reporter riffing off a series of missed touches and panicky attempts at home-run passes that all failed.
A chance at redemption came about midway through, when a ball came through the air and I saw a teammate breaking open.
The ball sailed over my head by what felt like 10 feet.
The players on my team knew passing the ball to me would lead to no good, so they didn’t bother. The defenders ignored me as well, figuring I’d bumble the ball away on my own.
My teammates spent most of the scrimmage telling me to slow down and, late in the session, I started to listen and began to at least resemble a soccer player. I controlled the ball and made a couple of short-but-on-target-passes to teammates.
In the closing minutes, I sent a through ball that led to a scoring chance and had another that actually set up a goal, though it was disallowed because my teammate was offside.
Seems about right for me.
The scrimmage ended a few seconds later and players from both teams congratulated each other on a good game — just about everyone but me.
Again, seems about right after my display.
They left the field with hope that Arizona United coaches might call them to attend training camp.
I left and went straight to In-N-Out Burger.
Absolutely right for me.
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