USL: Darren Mackie, Raising Soccer In Arizona

Written by Ian Thomson
Darren Mackie, third from right, training with his new Phoenix F.C. teammates (Photo: Trevor R. Hill)

Darren Mackie’s children, 3-year-old son Kobe and 9-month-old daughter Izzy, were growing tetchy as they waited to clear customs at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix after arriving on Feb. 6. Mackie’s wife, Jenni, helped Phoenix F.C.’s new striker to load the family’s seven suitcases, various carry-on bags and other items onto three trolleys when they reached the baggage carousel. They approached the revolving door leading to the arrivals hall expecting Phoenix head coach David Robertson and managing director Rui Filipe Bento to welcome them to the next chapter of their lives.

“We were on autopilot by that point,” Mackie told The Soccer Observer in a recent telephone interview. “It would have been three in the morning British time and we hadn’t really slept on the plane. The kids were having a good moan. They were tired and didn’t want to walk, so we had to carry them as well as the bags.”

All Mackie wanted to do was get to his hotel and collapse into bed. Phoenix supporters’ club La Furia Roja 1881, or The Red Fury, had other ideas. About 10 members ambushed their new hero, presenting him with flowers and a gift basket containing sunscreen and Aloe Vera to guard against the fierce Arizona weather, candy bars for the kids and toys for the family’s two cats. “There’s only one Darren Mackie,” they chanted as the flabbergasted player and his wife chuckled. Mackie had not been subjected to such fawning away from the pitch since he walked into a Dnipropetrovsk pub after scoring the diving header that sent Aberdeen into the group stages of the 2007-2008 UEFA Cup.

“We’re really excited to have Daz with us,” said La Furia Roja director Greg Spradlin. “He’s definitely the highest profile player on the team. He’s been with Aberdeen for so long that we want to make him feel welcome.”

Mackie’s attempts to repay his new fans begin on March 23 when Phoenix plays its first ever fixture in the 13-team United Soccer Leagues Pro Division, the third tier of North America’s soccer pyramid. The USL is a largely semi-professional division comprising some deep-pocketed franchises that are aiming to reach Major League Soccer and others that are content to stay put. Phoenix falls into the former category, according to Mackie, and his role is to infuse 14 years of playing experience into Robertson’s young squad.

“The plans here at the club are to try to grow one step at a time and get into the MLS however long it takes,” Mackie said. “It’s a hugely ambitious organization.”

Former Aberdeen left-back Robertson targeted the Inverurie native after his contract expired last summer. The pair discussed the move for a couple of months, though Mackie’s studies toward the UEFA “B” coaching license prevented him from taking a first-hand look at the Phoenix set-up. A deal was reached in September when Mackie was unveiled as the club’s first ever player. He kept himself fit by training with Aberdeen until Christmas.

“David told me everything about the club and just sold me on the idea,” Mackie said. “All the young guys are obviously looking up to me with the level I’ve played at, so I’m just trying to pass on my knowledge. They can come to me any time and ask any sort of advice and I’ll help them any way I can.”

Where Mackie lacks insight is on the oft-convoluted landscape of American soccer. Stoke City’s affiliate club Orlando City has dominated the USL regular season for the past two years under former Stoke and Everton forward Adrian Heath. The Lions currently play at the 65,000-seat Florida Citrus Bowl and talks are advancing to secure a smaller downtown stadium site that should smooth Orlando’s entry into MLS. At the opposite end of the facilities scale lies Dayton Dutch Lions. The Ohio club’s less-than-prestigious artificial high school field comes with gridiron markings and few supporters. Phoenix will be using the 5,000-seat Sun Devil Soccer Stadium used by Arizona State University’s women’s team – the school does not have a men’s side — as they seek to secure a foothold in the city’s sports psyche.

A few harsh experiences lie ahead for Mackie, and not just from Arizona’s brutal summer sun. Laborious travel is guaranteed with only one other USL side, the Los Angeles Blues, based in the western half of the United States. Teams frequently play back-to-back games on consecutive days to minimise expenses. “The Wolves” face a particularly grueling spell through May and June with eight of 11 games on the road. A trip to Richmond, Virginia in May will be followed by a 260-mile bus journey to the next night’s game in Wilmington, North Carolina. Similar anguish is scheduled one month later with a 4- to 5-hour drive required between the final whistle in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and kick-off in Rochester, New York the following evening. Tam McManus, now with the Rochester Rhinos, struggled badly with the double-headers last year. The former Hibernian forward’s initial reaction to scanning the fixture list was to call his manager to inform him there must be a typo.

“That’s part of it being a different culture,” Mackie said. “We’ll see how the older boys get on. I still feel fit and fresh. They’re big on all their fitness and recovery stuff here, so hopefully I’ll be able to manage.”

Scott Morrison, another ex-Aberdeen player, has also joined a squad that is slanted toward local players and recent college graduates. Mackie and Anthony Obodai, a former Ghanaian national team midfielder who played for Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam, are the only two players to have turned 30. Robertson’s son, Mason, has been training with the team during pre-season although the teenage forward has signed a letter of intent to join the University of Washington in the autumn. There the Aberdeen connection continues – Jamie Clark, son of legendary Dons goalkeeper Bobby, is the men’s head coach at the Seattle-based school.

Phoenix began its preparations on Feb. 11 and Mackie has been impressed with the team’s first few weeks together. “They’re a great bunch of guys,” he said. “Some of them knew each other already and everyone is gelling really well.”

Life off the field has been relatively painless too. Mackie’s family swiftly found an apartment on the city’s north side and the club provided him with transport to make the half-hour commute to their training facilities at Arizona State University. A second car to relieve housebound Jenni is a priority once they have received their social security numbers. Mackie and Morrison’s first trip to the local government office ended prematurely when they encountered a line of about 150 people ahead of them.

The only other issue could concern Mackie’s son, whose name derived from Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant’s appearance on television a few years ago while the former Don was on holiday in the States. Phoenix fans that also follow the Suns basketball team could be a little miffed by Mackie’s connection to their Pacific Division rivals.

“Well, nobody’s said anything so far,” Mackie said. “We’ll just keep it quiet.”

A version of this story was first published in Aberdeen Football Club’s Red Matchday Magazine on March 9.

Related Posts:

July 2, 2012 – O’Connor Focused On Bringing Success To Orlando

June 30, 2012 – Heath Laments Orlando’s Lack Of Cutting Edge

June 22, 2012 – Nomad McManus Adds Nous To Rochester

Feb. 27, 2012 – Orlando’s New Arrivals Can See Club Stepping Up To MLS