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EXCLUSIVE: Chelsea icon Drogba absent as Phoenix Rising crash out of US Open Cup

Phoenix Rising crashes out of the U.S. Open Cup to an Arizona-based Amateur Side without Didier Drogba

Phoenix Rising, who have struggled in the U.S. Open Cup, losing a home match last season in the third round to the San Francisco Deltas of the NASL, didn't even make it that far this year, falling to Sporting AZ FC, an amateur side in the East Valley of Phoenix, in the second round of the annual cup competition on May 16. Sporting hosted the game in suburban Gilbert and after a 1-1 tie in regulation time, won 6-5 on penalties.

Phoenix Rising forward Chris Cortez (ex-University of California and former MLS side Chivas USA) scored in the 64th minute but in less than a minute, the underdog amateur team tied up the match when Sporting AZ FC forward Ryan Flood (19 year old local player) fed Danny Arrubla (ex-Metropolitan State University in Colorado), who hit the ball first time just under the Rising crossbar. After 30 minutes of scoreless overtime, with Sporting AZ FC goalkeeper Chris Weber denying multiple chances from Phoenix Rising forwards Chris Cortez, Jason Johnson (Jamaican international and ex-Houston Dash and Chicago Fire), and midfielder Gladson Awako (Ghana international who won a African Champions League title with TP Mazambe in Congo).

In the penalty kicks session, in front of a crowd of approximately 1,200 surrounding the field since there was very little permanent seating, Rising went first but immediately went into a hole when Cortez banged his shot off of crossbar. The teams traded goals until the last round when Sporting's David Paul (a Phoenix native who played for four seasons with Puszcza Niepolomice of Poland) skied his fifth-round potential winner over the goal. In the sixth round, Rising's Kody Wakasa (in his first year as a professional after playing at California Polytechnic State University) saw his shot saved by Weber initially, though the ball rolled agonizingly towards the goal, only to hit the post and dribble out of play. Japanese import Eijin Kishimoto, who came to the States earlier in the year to try out with MLS teams and then was signed by Sporting AZ FC, sent the ball past Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski (in his fourth season with the club), who dived in the opposite direction, marking an historic moment in Arizona soccer history.

Sporting AZ FC's Costa Rican international Alejandro Aguilar (in light blue) heads a ball away from an FC Arizona opponent on May 9 in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup. (Photo courtesy of Arianna Grainey Photography).

Didier Drogba, the former Chelsea star who is a player-owner with Rising, did not play in the Open Cup and was not even on the bench.

Head coach Patrice Carteron used mostly backups, trying to manage a roster that had an important league match three days later against the Sacramento Republic, who were third in the 17 team Western Conference with 18 points on 5 wins, 3 ties and 2 defeats. Rising, at the time was second in the division on 21 points (6-3-1 W-D-L) and only one point behind the division leading Real Monarchs with 22 points. Despite Drogba's presence in the starting lineup, Rising fell at home 3-1 to Sacramento, despite a 25-6 shot advantage for Phoenix in the game. Cameron Iwasa (ex-University of California Irvine) scored in the 8th minute and then Sacramento doubled the tally in the 21st through Villyan Bijev (a Bulgarian/American who was on the books of Liverpool as a teenager, spent time on loan in Germany and Norway, and then played in Bulgaria and with Portland Timbers 2 and Sacramento in the USL). Rising had an opportunity to score from the penalty spot late in the first half but Didier Drogba's shot was saved by American goalkeeper Josh Cohen (who was a teammate of Drogba last season for Rising). Rising did cut the deficit in half in the 62nd minute as Chris Cortez scored from an Solomon Asante (Ghana international who also played at TP Mazambe) assist. Despite a number of chances, Sacramento secured the win when England's Wilson Kneeshaw broke away with no defenders in sight and scored easily. Kneeshaw signed with Sacramento for the 2017 season after time with Blyth Spartans and Darlington in the Northern Premier League.

French native Patrice Carteron, who won an African Champions League Cup coaching with TP Mazembe, took Mali to third place in the African Cup of Nations and also coached Cannes and Dijon in France's Ligue 1 after playing for years in Ligue 1, said after the Sacramento match: "I can't explain suddenly why on offensive we have lost our confidence; we have to learn. We had chances but it was just not our night." He explained that he used a different line up from Wednesday's Open Cup loss to Sporting: "No player [was in the lineup] tonight from Wednesday—I wanted to protect as many players to be fresh. We started the game offensively, our best start this year, with 16 chances [in the first half]. That can happen. We must work on being much more efficient."

Meanwhile Sporting AZ FC went confidently into the next round of the Open Cup, hosting another USL side, Fresno FC, an expansion team this season. Sporting plays in the United Premier Soccer League, an amateur loop with over 20 regional conferences nationwide. They are currently 4-0-1 for 12 points in the six team Southwest Division, with three other Arizona teams—including their own second team—one from New Mexico and one from El Paso, Texas. Sporting AZ FC is showing the aggressive development of the game by starting their second team this season, that also plays in a state amateur league. Sporting AZ FC actually played MLSColorado Rapids (who typically train in Arizona) in a preseason friendly, falling 9-0.

Sporting AZ FC forward Ryan Flood (in light blue) attacks the FC Arizona backline on May 9 in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup. (Photo courtesy of Arianna Grainey Photography).

Sporting AZ FC has a collection of veteran players including goalkeeper Andrew Weber, who won a PDL (USL Amateur League title) with Cape Cod Crusaders in 2003 while in college in New Mexico. He then played with D.C. Untied in MLS, the Montreal Impact in the USL First Division and then with San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers back in MLS, where he was on the team that won a MLS title in 2015. Weber also spent time with the original iteration of the now Rising side, the Phoenix FC Wolves in 2013. That side fell to USL PDL (amateur level side) FC Tucson 2-1 in their first U.S. Open Cup game, a shocking result that seemed to derail the club through the remainder of the season, which had to finish in various Phoenix area fields as they avoided creditors; they ended up 12th out of 13 teams in the then third division loop. Their head coach, former Scottish international defender David Robertson—who played for Aberdeen, Rangers and Leeds Untied—is now coaching Real Kashmir FC in the Indian second division.

In addition to Weber, other experienced Sporting AZ FC squad members included David Paul, who played for three plus season in Poland, Dominic Papa (ex-San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League), Costa Rican forward Alejandro Aguilar, who played at home with LD Alajelense and was capped once and played in the USL with the Pittsburg Riverhounds, and midfielder Tony Cascio, who played with the Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo in the MLS.

Against Fresno FC (2-6-3 with 12 points for eleventh place in the USL's Western Division, Sporting AZ FC took the lead through nineteen-year-old striker Ryan Flood, who curled a 20 yarder into the net from the left wing near the hour mark. Fresno's Danny Barrera (a former youth international who played in Serbia and the University of California-Santa Barbara) scored a "wonder shot," according to Sporting AZ FC head coach Aiden Davison, with less than 15 minutes left to go, leveling the scoreline. In the 99th minute, Renato Bustamante (Peruvian American) put the visitors up for good, but Sporting had some good chances at the end of the extra 30 minutes, including one in which Weber came up from his own goal to post up on the far side of Fresno's goal for a free kick; Weber passed the fall in front of goal but it was narrowly pushed wide of the goal and the referee signaled the end of the game soon after.

Sporting AZ FC head coach Aidan Davison (a former Norther Irish international goalkeeper who played for Milwall, Bolton Wanderers, Grimsby Town and Colchester United among others) actually missed the Rising game, after designing the game plan, to finish his UEFA Professional license course in Belfast. After the Fresno game he said: "It was a good tactical battle tonight but at the end we got a little bit fatigued…It's great for local soccer, Arizona soccer, we have FC Arizona, Sporting AZ FC and Rising—it's a testament to owners of this franchise to put money where their mouths are; they want to support soccer and drive it forward and help the next generation. I'm proud to be part of that. Tonight, no faulting any of the players, staff, or all the people behind what we are doing, it's just an outstanding effort."

In the first round, Sporting AZ FC defeated a semiprofessional side, Arizona FC 1-0, with a 73rd minute goal by local player John Guse, who played collegiately at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania. Arizona FC plays in the National Premier Soccer League, viewed as the fourth tier of American professional soccer, with about 100 teams around the country. A number of Sporting AZ FC players and coaches were with Arizona FC in 2017, their inaugural season, when they won their division and fell in the semifinals.

Sporting AZ FC (in light blue) forward John Guse scored the goal in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup which sent his side into the next round to face USL side Phoenix Rising, on May 9. (Photo Courtesy of Arianna Grainey Photography).

With Rising's strong start to the USL season, Sporting's dramatic U.S. Open Cup run and FC Arizona continuing to field strong teams in the NWSL, as well as the always strong FC Tucson PDL club, the club game has never been stronger in the state.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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