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EXCLUSIVE: Chelsea legend Drogba scores in Phoenix Rising debut

Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba made his first appearance for United States United Soccer League side Phoenix Rising on Saturday, and our very own Tim Grainey was on the ground to witness the Ivorian in action. Tim also discusses Drogba's former teammate Joe Cole, who has joined fellow USL team Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Drogba makes a fine debut for Phoenix Rising

It has been two months (April 12) since Didier Drogba announced that he was joining the United States' United Soccer League (Division 2) Phoenix (Arizona) Rising FC on a two year playing contract. Drogba also has an ownership stake in the organization that is trying to land an MLS expansion franchise, as the top professional league in the United States and Canada looks to expand from their current 22 teams to 28 over the next few years—with a second Los Angeles franchise and David Beckham's Miami team already awarded and due to start within the next few seasons.

Drogba scored on a header in the 18-yard box in the 40th minute to give Phoenix Rising the lead in the first half over Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 in front of 7,062 fans at Phoenix Rising Stadium in Scottsdale Arizona on June 10 in his USL debut match. Drogba ,39, lived up to his world superstar status and there was absolutely no indication that he hadn't played competitively for six months.

He guided his teammates and seemed particularly annoyed with the slow approach to the game by the Whitecaps and the referee—unfortunately he will find that North American second division refereeing standards are not up to what he has been used to in Europe. In the first half, Drogba had 17 touches on the ball, playing at the point of a 4-2-3-1 formation. He had 13 completed passes and four that went astray, with three shots. Besides the goal, he hit the crossbar on his two other shots.

The Whitecaps tied the match in the 69th minute by Marco Bustos on a highly disputed penalty call. The Rising's other former English international Shaun Wright-Phillips—who played with Red Bulls in New York in MLS, Manchester City and at Chelsea with Drogba—scored the winner in the 77th minute on a timely feed from Drogba. In the second half, Drogba had 19 touches on the ball, with three shots, 12 completed passes and only one that went astray. Drogba's passing interplay with Wright-Phillips, particularly in the second half, created opportunities for Phoenix and showed the high level of skill of both players.

After the game Drogba said about his USL debut: "It was very difficult for me after six months without practicing and it took me five weeks to get back into a kind of shape. I think I need a few weeks to improve but it is good to start at home and start with the three points….We controlled the game and were consistent in our movements."

When asked if his debut in Phoenix was different from his debut with clubs in China, England, France, Ivory Coast and Turkey, he said: "[It was] nothing different. It's still the beautiful game and I want to enjoy it; I was enjoying it today and it was important for me." On playing with his former Chelsea teammate Wright-Phillips, he joked: "Old guys, old times, same goals. I know his runs and I was trying to wait; the last one wasn't perfect but the goal was nice."

Shawn Wright Phillips talked about what Drogba joining Phoenix Rising FC meant:

"For me, the players, staff and fans as well, it's very important. He brings something different to the game and he also lifts everybody and expects a lot more so that people have to play to their potential, which is fantastic for the team and the club."

The rising of Phoenix and their new leader

Drogba was introduced to the fans and media on April 23 at halftime of FC Phoenix's rousing 4-3 win over Swope Park (KS) Rangers. At the time, team officials said that he needed a good four-to-six weeks to get into shape. Since Drogba met the Phoenix fans and media, there have been some changes in the team coaching structure.

Head coach Frank Yallop (ex-Canadian national team player and head coach as well as a long-time Ipswich defender) resigned on April 24 to spend more time with his family in California. Assistant coach Rick Schantz—former FC Tucson head coach in the summer Premier Development League—stepped in as interim coach and the club went 2-0-3 (W-D-L), not including a last second 2-1 loss to NASL expansion side San Francisco Deltas at home in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. With Phoenix Rising entering the game with a 4-0-5 league record, the debut of Drogba was much anticipated, as well as their new coach.

On May 22, Phoenix Rising named French coach Patrice Carteron as head coach. The 46-year-old is a veteran coach in France, Africa and West Asia. He guided Dijon FCO to promotion to Ligue 1at home and then led Mali to third place in the Africa Cup of Nations in 2014 before taking D.R. Congo power TP Mazembe to two league titles and an African Champions League title. He coached Wadi Degla in Egypt and just left Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia for Phoenix, after qualifying them for this season's Asian Champions League. Carteron was a defender throughout a long career in France, primarily for Olympique Lyon, Saint Etienne and Cannes. Phoenix Rising FC Governor

Berke Bakay said about signing the well-traveled coach: "Bringing Patrice Carteron to Phoenix Rising FC is another tremendous achievement for professional soccer in the United States. His holistic approach to the game combines a unique blend of strategy, wellness, and uncompromising competitiveness. Patrice will bring the very best performance out of our players and nourish a new soccer culture for youth development in cooperation with our affiliate youth clubs throughout Arizona."

After the game versus Whitecaps FC 2, Carteron said: "It was good to win; we had only two days to prepare for this game [since he arrived in town]. So it was not that easy. I think we had to change after the first twenty, twenty-five minutes tactically, dealing with the other side specifically. I decided that Shawn should play out on the right in the formation and Omar [Bravo] to play up with Didier in the attack was the best thing. That's why we organized our team in two lines of four for the rest of the game, and they [Whitecaps FC 2] had a lot of young talented players on their team. I think as a team we will get better physically and tactically; defensively we have a few things to work on. But I am happy with these three points. Seven-thousand people in the stands tonight and I am happy to get these three points and that the people got to see two goals."

Specifically on Drogba's play, Carteron was very pleased: "I'm happy because Didier let most of the fun come to him and he showed that he is still a great player. He did his job, scored a goal and had a good pass to Shawn today. So I am really happy for him, really happy for the fans, Phoenix Rising and happy for all of you to see such a good player."

With a successful debut for the new player-owner and coach, the team is tied for eighth in the 15 team Western Conference with a 5-0-5 record for 15 points. The top eight teams make the playoffs and with the skills of Drogba and coaching acumen of Carteron, things are looking very good for Phoenix Rising FC, which in five years in the USL has not made the playoffs. A successful 2017 season will keep the fans energized and help to maintain momentum for a MLS franchise.

Joe Cole joins the USL with Tampa Bay and MLS expansion

Drogba is not the only international with a global recognition factor to join the second division league. Drogba's former Chelsea teammate, Joe Cole, joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2016 and scored 3 goals and 3 assists in 9 appearances. He was capped 56 times by England and played in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups. He won 3 league championships at Chelsea and also played at West Ham, for Lille in France and Coventry City. He extended his contract with Tampa Bay, who played in the NASL in 2016 but joined the USL in 2017; the USL was formerly a Division 3 League in U.S. Soccer's professional pyramid, but this January was granted Division 2 status along with the NASL. The NASL has been struggling financially for some years while the USL has seen rapid growth in teams over the past few years with 30 in 2017, up from 13 in Phoenix's first year in the league in 2013.

Besides Shawn Wright Phillips in Phoenix, both sides have another international that has brought each team more followers from their home country and in the local market. Phoenix Rising midfielder Omar Bravo (66 caps and 15 goals for Mexico) who played primarily for Chivas Guadalajara, as well as in Spain with Deportivo La Coruna and in MLS with Sporting Kansas City. For Tampa, former German International midfielder Marcel Schafer had 8 caps for Germany and won a Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg and played at 1860 Munich.

Interestingly Tampa is also one of twelve bidders for a MLS expansion franchise as is Phoenix, which includes:

  • Charlotte
  • Cincinnati
  • Detroit
  • Indianapolis
  • Nashville
  • Raleigh
  • Sacramento
  • St. Louis
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • Tampa St. Petersburg

Right now, the priority for Phoenix Rising F.C. is the USL season, but with Drogba showing so well in his first game in Phoenix, over time he will be looked at in his ownership role to help the Arizona Capital land a Major League Soccer team.

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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