SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. â€” Although the Phoenix area isn’t yet a major pro soccer market, Sunday night felt like a big step toward that dream for Phoenix Rising FC and its fans.
The second-division club packed its 6,200-seat facility in nearby Scottsdale to beyond capacity for the official introduction of international superstar Didier Drogba as player, owner and club ambassador. Drogba, voted English powerhouse Chelsea’s best player in history by the club’s fans in 2012 and the all-time leader in international goals for his native Ivory Coast, arrived in Phoenix on Friday and attended his first Phoenix Rising FC match Sunday night.
Drogba is signed to Phoenix Rising for two years and will eventually take the field as a player for the club and help the team’s cause in its bid for Major League Soccer. He addressed the crowd at halftime of Phoenix Rising’s match against Swope Park Rangers of Kansas City.
“Together, Phoenix is going to be in the MLS,” he said, drawing cheers.
Drogba’s arrival has caused a stir in greater Phoenix. The big striker considered an offer to be on Chelsea’s coaching staff and play in China, but chose Phoenix. The city is among a group of a dozen U.S. cities hoping to be awarded one of four MLS expansion bids either later this year or thereafter.
“This is the beginning of an amazing journey,” Drogba told the crowd. “This is the beginning of something very important for me and I hope we are going to be together for a long time. We’re going to win a lot of games here.”
Bringing Drogba to Phoenix, which surprised more than a few soccer observers, only further improves the market’s chances for an MLS club, Phoenix Rising governor Berke Bakay said. With help from a mutual friend of his and Drogba’s, Bakay brought Drogba to Phoenix earlier this year before the Phoenix Rising stadium complex was built. He then made his pitch to sell Drogba on the potential of one of the United States’ largest cities without an MLS team.
Bakay said MLS was looking for three main criteria in considering expansion bids: the market, the ownership group and a stadium solution.
“When you think about the demographics of Phoenix, they’re twice as big as the next media market in terms of TV viewership,” Bakay said. “We have a fantastic ownership group and we also announced that Didier is going to be part of our MLS expansion ownership group, so that makes that group significantly more attractive, bringing that worldwide soccer credibility to our ownership group and puts Phoenix on the map not just locally, but around the world.”
The Phoenix Rising ownership group also includes Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, Grammy award-winning DJ and record producer Diplo and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who attended Sunday’s game after getting the win over the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier in the day.
Despite the presence of the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL, WNBA and Pac-12 in the market, Phoenix is full of soccer fans who watch Mexico’s Liga MX matches in high numbers, and its large Hispanic population is appealing to MLS.
The stadium was built in roughly a month and a half and will be the site of any future MLS facility, its location on a plot of Native American tribal land adjacent to freeways, restaurants, shopping and entertainment.
Drogba, 39, is familiar with MLS. He played for Montreal in 2015 and 2016 and scored 22 goals in 37 games. He has won a UEFA Champions League title and four Premier League championships with Chelsea and played in three World Cups.
“We’re talking about one of the best strikers to ever play the game, and I think he’s going to be able to go out there and make an immediate impact,” Bakay said. “MLS is very, very excited about what we are doing. They’re happy with our stadium solution. … They’re very happy with our ownership group. Very objectively, looking at the data, there’s nobody in a better position than us.”
Drogba, dressed in a button-down shirt, dark pants and a black ball cap he wore backwards, had an impact on the youngsters in Chelsea-style jerseys who surrounded him at midfield as he spoke. He held up a red Phoenix Rising No. 11 jersey, and with his final words was mobbed by kids for a giant group hug.
“Great feeling to be here with the team,” Drogba said. “I think if there wasn’t this opportunity to go to the MLS, I would still be here to help the club and the city to get to the MLS. This one is a great challenge and I’m really proud to be a part of it.”
Jose M. Romero, The Associated Press