Local | Sports

New semi-pro soccer team takes historic name: Tucson Maccabees

Members of the Tucson Maccabees semi-pro soccer team pause during a recent practice for a team meeting. (Courtesy Tucson Maccabees)

A new local semi-professional soccer team has its roots not only in the Old Pueblo, but also in “the old country.”

“My first experience with soccer was as a young child in Romania when my father took me to a game,” recalls Meir Segal, the team’s founder and coach. “I was amazed by what the players could do.”

That first impression hooked Segal on soccer and led to a life playing and coaching the world’s most popular game. This September he formed the Tucson Maccabees soccer club, choosing a name that generations of Jewish athletes have played under in soccer and a variety of sports.

Playing its first season this fall, Tucson Maccabees is the only Southern Arizona team in the United Premier Soccer League’s Southwest Conference, Arizona Division 1. The team uses Naranja Park in Oro Valley as its home field and currently has four Jewish players on its roster. They include team captain and goalkeeper Shawn Spitzer and his brother, Ryan, as well as Segal’s sons, Jacob and Michael, both students at Mountain View High School.

Segal’s goal is to not only build a competitive team representing the region, but also to provide opportunity for younger players in the community to advance on and off the field.

“I wanted to give my sons a chance to play at a higher level, and I also know from coaching here that there is strong talent in the area we could attract,” Segal says. “At our tryouts we had more than 60 players from the U.S., Central America, Mexico, Cameroon, and other countries. The response has been terrific.”

Segal’s recruitment strategy has included a partnership with Sunnyside High School’s soccer program to create a pathway for some former student athletes, now young adults seeking advancement opportunities, to join Tucson Maccabees, and hopefully go further. Segal says that in addition to coaching them in soccer, he is supporting networking and applications to college for players who may benefit from having a coach-advocate in the admissions process.

Eight of the 28 players on the Maccabees’ inaugural roster are former Sunnyside student athletes. Among them is Manuel Quiroz, the Maccabee’s leading scorer with six goals so far this season. As of press time, the Maccabees had won their last three games, making their record three wins, three losses, and two games played to a draw, with two games left to play in the season.

Sunnyside High School athletic director and head soccer coach Casey O’Brien reports the association with the Tucson Maccabees “could be a potential pathway, just one more alternative for some of our former students to be considered for secondary education.”

Segal refers to the team’s diverse roster as “a great mix of talented guys.” The club’s players make the commitment to practice four nights a week after work or school, and compete in 10 games in Oro Valley and Phoenix this fall season.

Segal is familiar with what it takes to earn a spot on high-level teams. After his family moved from Romania to Israel in 1960, he played soccer continuously and by age 10 was a ball boy to professional team Hapoel Petach-Tikva F.C. Immersing himself in the sport, he had the chance to observe and practice the techniques of some of Israel’s star players, whom he refers to as “my early heroes in the game.” He then played in the youth soccer program of Hakoah Maccabi Ramat Gan F.C. in Tel Aviv until age 16, when he was elevated to its professional squad, helping the team win a championship in 1973.

As Segal’s success in the sport gained momentum during his teen years, coaches for others teams were considering him, including Maccabee Los Angeles Soccer Club, a storied franchise founded by Israeli expatriates including Holocaust survivors. Like many Jewish athletic organizations, Maccabee Los Angeles took its title from the priestly family that led resistance uprisings with speed and agility to secure Jewish independence in ancient times. The team was popular on the semi-pro circuit and in the Jewish community for its highly skilled players, and for its uniforms that featured the Star of David.

Following three years of service in the Israel Defense Forces, Segal emigrated to California in 1976 to play for Maccabee Los Angeles. Little did he and his new teammates know they would soon make U.S. soccer history.

In a prime example of being the right player on the right team at the right time, he excelled at his forward position during Maccabee Los Angeles’ glory years. The team captured a soccer “Triple Crown” in 1977, and again in 1978, by winning the Greater Los Angeles Soccer LeagueCalifornia State Cup, and the U.S. Open Cup. Its 1978 U.S. Open Cup victory against Bridgeport Vasco da Gama from Connecticut was played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in front of tens of thousands of fans.

Over just 11 seasons in the 1970s and early 1980s, Maccabee Los Angeles experienced unusual success by competing in seven finals and winning five championships.

During his years as a player, Segal alternated teams, competing for four months each spring season for Philadelphia Fury, and seven months each fall season in Los Angeles, he says.

Maccabee Los Angeles ceased operations after its 1982 season, but Maccabee Athletic Club continued a program for youth players under Segal’s direction for several years.

Segal moved to Phoenix in the early 1990s, and through a friend found new opportunity in coaching Arizona Youth Soccer Association teams in Tucson. These included Fort Lowell Attack and Fort Lowell Sidewinders, which won a state cup under his direction.

Several players on youth club teams Segal coached moved on to play college soccer at schools including Stanford and Duke, and a few turned pro after signing with teams in the U.S. and Europe, he says.

Tucson Maccabees goalie Shawn Spitzer exemplifies the level of talent and experience that Segal is attracting today. Spitzer played Division 1 men’s soccer for Grand Canyon University and competed with the Maccabi USA national team at the Maccabi Games in Israel and the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil.

“It is truly special to play under Meir and show the community that if you really work hard there is a path to professional soccer in Tucson,” Spitzer says. “True to the spirit of the Maccabee name, our team has a strong work ethic, and we don’t give up.”

Spitzer cites the team’s first win on Nov. 15 as an example of the Maccabee’s competitiveness. They prevailed 3-2 over FC Arizona U23 in Phoenix on a goal scored by center forward Francisco Esteban Manzo during 90 seconds of added time.

As the Tucson Maccabees kick off Arizona’s latest soccer venture, Segal remains focused not only on winning games, but also on supporting emerging talent just as he was supported earlier in his career.

“I was 22 when Maccabee Los Angeles recruited me,” he explains. “The team took care of my living expenses, paid me a partial salary, and even arranged a scholarship at Cal State Northridge. I didn’t complete college, however, and I’d like to see my sons have a stronger start.”

For more information, visit Tucson Maccabees Facebook page and check out their UPSL game schedule.