Soccer isn’t the first thing that comes to most Arizonans’ minds when they think of sports. Basketball, baseball and football all have huge audiences across the Valley and have the big names to back them up — Mike Bibby, Curt Schilling and Terrell Suggs to name a few.
Arizona soccer is growing and has big names of its own. Two Arizona women — Julie Ertz and Jessica McDonald — just finished competing for the World Cup with the U.S. Women’s Team in France.
Closer to home, and working to play on bigger stages, are Ilijah Paul and Brandon Keniston. Paul, 16, and Keniston, 17, are two Arizona-born teens who are Phoenix Rising teammates. They’re paving the way for Arizona soccer’s future.
A Gilbert native, Paul is the youngest player signed to the Rising, but it wasn’t an easy road.
Previously, Paul spent six months in Utah as a forward for Real Salt Lake’s Development Academy. He moved away from home to get the proper training. He purposely chose an academy so he could “compete at the top levels.”
The adjustment was harder than he thought, but it wasn’t about loneliness or homesickness.
“I like the heat. That’s what I like the most. People say I’m crazy. It’s kind of tough, but I’d rather train in the heat than below zero,” Paul says.
He now travels between the Rising and FC Tucson, an American soccer club that was purchased by the Phoenix Rising in 2017. This is surreal for him because he grew up attending games by Arizona United, the precursor to the Phoenix Rising.
“We always came to these games when it was Arizona United when we were little,” he says. “It’s crazy that I’m from here and that I get to play for my hometown.”
But he sticks to his advice of letting himself be on the pitch.
“I feel like you can’t be the best copycat of anyone else,” Paul says. “You just have to be yourself.”
Like Paul, Keniston signed with the Phoenix Rising this past year, but he took a much different route to the club.
He played his freshmen year and eight matches of his sophomore year as a goalkeeper for Chaparral High School, while he was with Phoenix Rising Youth.
He says, “high school soccer in general is more of a fun, competitive environment,” but he learned a lot playing for both teams.
At Chaparral he was forced to mature fast and learned to play with poise by competing with and against upperclassmen who were already committed to play in college.
With Phoenix Rising Youth, the coaches were all “very committed to making each and every young player the best they can.” Keniston says that the coaches put a lot of emphasis on developing the youth and working them through the system. He says that this is done not only to develop their players, but also to prepare them for the next level, whether that be college or pro.
During his sophomore year, Keniston spent a year in Almunecar, Spain playing for FC Malaga City Academy. There he learned lessons that he could not learn in the United States. Keniston says, “you learn a lot about all the different kinds of tactics. You learn how to adapt on the spot during the game.” Unlike high school, the academy taught Keniston “the true grit it takes to get a result anywhere you go.”
Like Paul, Keniston stresses and understands the importance of training with an academy.
Keniston got a taste of professional soccer as a waterboy and ballboy for Arizona United. He looks up to Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski.
Keniston is thankful he’s playing for the Rising as it shows hometown kids they can make it in the pros.
“Being back home and representing Phoenix Rising shows all the kids in the youth systems how much work it takes and if you put the work in you can get to where you want to be,” he says.
Keniston tells kids seeking advice to “never give up.”
“There’s always going to be ups and downs in your youth career,” he says. “Stay determined and put in the necessary work and you can get to where you want to be.”