The stars were out in Scottsdale, AZ on Saturday night, as goals from Didier Drogba and Shaun Wright-Phillips propelled Phoenix Rising FC to a 2-1 victory over visiting Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. It was the debut for Drogba and new head coach Patrice Carteron.
With the anticipation of Drogba’s debut growing to a fever pitch in recent weeks, Carteron acknowledged that it was worth the wait.
“I think it was a good decision for him to take the time to be ready because he had not played for six months,” the coach said. “He decided to have six weeks of preparation for his first game because, of course everybody expects to see Didier Drogba. If 7,000 people are coming to the stadium, he has to be ready.”
Vancouver’s Kyle Greig got things started in the third minute, when he penetrated on Rising’s right side, and played in a cross that was mercifully cleared out of danger.
Greig again lost his mark in the sixth, but with defenders on his heels, his low shot was saved by a charging Josh Cohen, who had quickly closed the gap. Despite holding possession, the Firebirds were conceding the better chances to WFC2.
In the 11th, Wright-Phillips put in a hopeful ball from the right end of the byline, but it was handled easily by Vancouver goalkeeper Sean Melvin. Three minutes later, Phoenix earned a dangerous free kick, but the chance fell to Omar Bravo, who skied his volley five yards from goal.
Cohen came up big again in the 20th, when a well-struck Whitecaps free kick landed in a crowded box, and the big keeper strongly punched the effort away, mid-collision with a Vancouver player.
Drogba gave the crowd a thrill in the 29th when his shot from distance was only barely saved by a diving Melvin. A moment later off the corner kick, Vancouver’s apparent force field around goal kept out two Rising shots in quick succession.
In the 34th, Jason Johnson made a long run down the left for Phoenix, with Drogba lingering in the middle. Johnson ultimately fired at goal but his effort went off the left crossbar for a goal kick.
Drogba would get another chance moments later, but his header was pushed into the underside of the crossbar by a grateful Melvin. The ‘keeper’s relief would not last long, however.
In the 40th, new Phoenix signing Amadou Dia controlled the ball outside the Vancouver area, and looped a scintillating cross toward the penalty spot where, towering in the air over his defender, Drogba got his head on the ball once again. This time, the Ivorian legend would not be denied, and Phoenix took a 1-0 lead.
Johnson looked to double the Phoenix lead early in the second half, when he streaked down the left side, using his speed to outpace the entirety of the Vancouver defense, as well as his own teammates. Looking up and seeing no help, he was forced to fire on Melvin, but his shot was smothered. A moment later Johnson was sprung by a perfectly weighted through ball from Wright-Phillips, but again, the pacey Jamaican was denied.
Phoenix would continue to push, with Drogba and Wright-Phillips playing Bravo and Johnson perfectly in the box to no avail.
In the 60th minute, Vancouver was awarded a soft foul 22 yards from the Phoenix goal, and the Marco Bustos free kick was deflected out of bounds for a corner. The resulting play earned another corner and some nervy moments before Phoenix would clear.
Drogba had his chance at a brace in the 64th when he was played through the area, but from the difficult angle he sent his 1v1 chance wide of Melvin’s net. Phoenix would rue their missed opportunities in the 69th, when Kody Wakasa was flagged for a controversial foul on the edge of the box, and Bustos buried his penalty kick to equalize the match.
Phoenix would retake the lead in the 77th when Drogba took control of the ball in midfield and fed Wright-Phillips just inside the right side of the box. One-on-one with Cole Seiler, SWP opted to fire directly through Seiler’s legs and past Melvin, right in front of the ecstatic supporter section.
— Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) June 11, 2017
Drogba was happy, after the match, to have connected once again with Wright-Phillips, his old Chelsea teammate. “I know his run,” Drogba said. “I know where he’s going off the ball and I’m trying to wait at the last moment to give him the perfect pass. It wasn’t perfect but the goal was nice.”
The Firebirds peppered Vancouver with a few more chances, and were able to see out the victory in front of an announced crowd of 7,062.
Phoenix Rising FC (5-5-0) travels to Kansas City on June 18 to take on Swope Park Rangers (4-4-1).