Surely this must be a dream.
Just one year after Arizona United SC finished a third campaign outside the playoff picture, in front of a smallish crowd of die-hards in distant Peoria, the local boys – now aptly named Phoenix Rising FC – enter the USL Cup Playoffs in fifth position in the Western Conference, and claiming the sixth best record in the league overall.
Leading the charge is living legend Didier Drogba, and he’s supported by a cast of characters as diverse and charming as the landscape of Arizona itself.
There are too many to name. Luke Rooney, who has been forced to watch most of the season from the sideline with injury, will always, in my opinion, be known as a beating heart supplying life to those around him. He is one of the guys who stayed after last season’s disappointment, and he deserves to be back next year.
Shaun Wright-Phillips, getting perhaps a second chance at the American game, has more than held his own. He is a workhorse, and a team player, slotting wherever he is asked to go, and bringing world class to every touch.
Josh Cohen. If anyone was going to wrestle the starting goalkeeper spot from fan favorite Carl Woszczynski, he wouldn’t last with the organization on skill alone. Cohen though, has been all class, and brings maturity beyond his years to go along with his high-flying stunts between the posts.
There’s the mid- and late-season additions – Dia, Hamilton, Lambert, Mala, Awako, Arreola, Avila – each of whom seemed to contribute just what was needed at just the right time.
Kody Wakasa is growing up before our eyes. Jason Johnson is a legitimate star. Alessandro Riggi goes places with a ball at his feet that fans at this level aren’t used to. Chris Cortez, a USL elder statesman already, has been deadly in the box.
For me though, and for so many others who have grown up with the rising and falling tide of Arizona soccer, Blair Gavin is the one. He’s the shining example of what is now possible. The Phoenix kid. The Sereno alum. He’s one of us, and someday, kids, you can go pro too – right here at home, if you want.
Head coach Patrice Carteron, who entered midseason along with Drogba, has endeared himself to fans with an engaging presence in public and a focused determination on the sideline. He’s lost just three matches in 23 since his debut.
It’s been a wild ride.
It wasn’t very long ago that having a home of their own seemed a distant fantasy to Arizona United fans, but Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex is one of the best venues in the United Soccer League, and the front office and club ownership put on a first-class experience.
As if this wasn’t good enough, we heard that Drogba was coming. Then, incredibly, he did. Sure, the reactions were mixed, but the results have not been. The Ivorian’s presence has been a boon to the club on the field, in the dressing room, and in the community.
The community. The fans. They have dreamed of this. They’ve yearned for it. And a good many of them have earned it, thank you very much.
The ache of being a soccer fan in the pro game’s doldrums was very real, for many years. Then a club came in, raised hopes, and smashed them again. Then Kyle Eng “saved Phoenix soccer,” as some said, and tracked down Brett Johnson, starting a domino effect of investment from soccer fans local and global.
All of these steps forward feel like a blur now, but through four years of disappointment, while other fans in other cities pursued hardware in the playoffs, we in the Valley stood on the outside looking in.
Not. This. Year.
With all that’s already happened. the next chapter is even more exciting. This team can win a trophy.
It was a while before things took shape, what with Frank Yallop’s surprising departure, but Carteron and Co. are firing on all cylinders at the moment, and have earned the time-honored title of “the team no one wants to play”.
But play, they must. Phoenix Rising travels to Kansas City this Saturday to take on Swope Park Rangers, the fourth seed in the Western Conference, and last year’s runners up to the Cup. A win in Missouri will earn the Firebirds a date with regular season champs Real Monarchs in Salt Lake City, or a home match against would-be giant killers Sacramento Republic.
Get past that round, and Phoenix will be in the Western Conference title game, which will feature one of Reno 1868, OKC Energy, Tulsa Roughnecks, or San Antonio FC. Phoenix has a combined record of two wins, five losses, and a draw against those teams this season. Reno beat Rising 4-0 in one contest, and Tulsa scored three goals on the Firebirds on two separate occasions.
There are no easy matches on the way to the USL Cup, but Phoenix Rising, in all of its forms, has never had an easy road to its accomplishments. And that’s just the way they like it.
There’s one more carrot here for Phoenix fans. Have a look at the final tables in the Eastern and Western Conferences. The USL Cup Final will be staged at the home ground of the finalist with the best record. Louisville City FC is the only team in the East with a better record than Rising FC – and Louisville does not control its venue.
Should Phoenix advance to the Final, they will surely host, and that is one party that Valley soccer fans will not want to miss.
So go on, Arizona. Breathe that rarefied air of Cup Contender. Puff out your chest, throw back your head, and stare destiny in the face. This is only the beginning.