Timbers train in Tucson, 1.23.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Timbers in Tucson | MLS helps give Kino Sports Complex a life beyond baseball

TUCSON, Ariz. – Timbers midfielder Lawrence Olum got a unique Kino Sports Complex experience last MLS preseason, when he was traded from Sporting Kansas City to Portland in February of 2017.

Under normal circumstance, a trade involves relatively dramatic measures: cleaning out of a locker; a significant flight; packing what you need to live in a new place; making contact with a whole new set of people, in a completely different organization.

Olum eventually had to do all that, but at Kino last February, the short-term change was much simpler. He just collected his person items, walked down a hallway, and took a spot in a different locker room.

“It wasn’t that difficult,” he remembers. “The only difference was, I was wearing different colors than the guys that I was with the night before. I was in one locker room, then I was in another locker room. It felt all the same to me.”

Such is the reality of Major League Soccer in Arizona. For nearly one month each winter, five or six teams dominate the building occupied by USL PDL-side FC Tucson, who sees the first level of their two-story home become a series of improvised locker rooms, sharing treatment centers, and community workout rooms.

This preseason, a conference room became FC Dallas’ dressing room. FC Tucson’s main locker room was split in two, accommodating both the Timbers and New England Revolution. The Houston Dynamo took up another space; Kansas City, yet another. The Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls were also training at the facility, which offers five fields beyond its main stadium.

It’s part of a broader Arizona experience that sees roughly one-quarter of the league exist in close proximity. Even back at the hotels, teams are near each other, usually only spreading out over two or three of the area’s venues. For Portland’s second trip to Arizona this preseason, their hotel in the city’s northern hills was also being used by Dallas and Kansas City.

That immediacy helped give Olum’s 2017 move its rare feel.

“You say bye to one of the guys you are rooming with in the other hotel, then then you have a new roommate,” he said, with a slight shrug. In Arizona, these swaps don’t feel like that big of a deal.

That MLS has made Tucson home has helped Kino survive. A decade ago, the complex was practically dedicated to Major League Baseball’s spring training. Even today, the venue’s south half is dominated by baseball diamonds. Come 2009, though, the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks stopped using the facilities, moving their spring training activities to Phoenix. All of a sudden, a place intended to be a Cactus League staple was left without baseball.

In that void, though, Kino could branch out. The facility now holds trade events, like the Tucson Gem Show that dominated the south complex earlier this February. Youth sports and community organizations have more access than it did during its Cactus League days, when baseball’s influence extended far beyond the calendar’s late winter months. Community colleges and the Pac-12 have held events there, and, of course, Major League Soccer’s presence continues to grow.

The south half of the complex still carries all the marks of those spring training days, but whereas once the seven diamonds around Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium (the main baseball venue) would have been bustling come March, they now define the sleepy part of the park. The grounds’ north half, however, is active beyond its soccer fields, with a YMCA, pool, softball fields and running path around a large, environmental restoration project providing February’s true spark.  

MLS teams only spend a few hours each day at Kino during preseason, but the hallmarks of their proximity can be seen throughout the preseason, from the casual conversations in the shared treatment center to ex-teammates and staffers traversing the stadium’s north stand to catch up with former co-workers. Beyond the easy access to games and scrimmages, the atmosphere helps ease teams into the regular season, and it’s one of the reasons why Kino Sports has been able to find a life beyond baseball.