Life for soccer fans in the Valley hasn’t been easy. The fifth-largest city in the United States has MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL franchises, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it finally secured a professional soccer team.
And a lower-division one at that. A lot has changed on the soccer landscape since then, including new teams, new players, new stadiums, new coaches and even new owners.
Is the awarding of a Major League Soccer expansion slot next?
“I do feel confident that we will have all the boxes checked,” Phoenix Rising FC co-chairman Brett Johnson said.
The team plays in the United Soccer League, which is the second division of the U.S. Soccer pyramid, but its ultimate goal is to earn first division status and join MLS.
Phoenix Rising FC learned in November it was not a finalist for two expansion spots — and not even on a shortlist — but is confident it will soon be part of the league’s continued growth.
In March, Los Angeles Football Club debuted as team No. 23. Miami and Nashville secured the next two spots with the 26th set to go to either Detroit, Cincinnati or Sacramento.
Rising management is hopeful it will be chosen as either the 27th or 28th franchise to join the league in the years following 2020.
Johnson understands why things unfolded the way they did.
“We were comfortable with it,” he said. “Our ownership group understood, and we were comfortable with not being on the shortlist. I don’t think there’s a team that’s done more this side of 2018 than Phoenix. Adding a billionaire to our cap table, and releasing the renderings to our stadium.”
Two months ago, the team announced that accomplished Chinese businessman Alex Zheng had joined the Phoenix Rising ownership group.
This isn’t Zheng’s first soccer team. He also owns a part of the French club OGC Nice, who play in Ligue 1, the first division in France.
“The biggest factor is having Alex join our cap table,” Johnson said. “He’s a Chinese billionaire and a principal owner of a very prominent club in Europe. That’s a massive movement for Phoenix because one of the questions marks was the depth of the capital relative to our ownership group and Alex helps to move the needle considerably on that.”
Besides adding an important figure to the ownership group, the team also revealed renderings for the new stadium it will build if awarded an MLS slot.
Unlike other stadiums that are home to professional sports teams in Arizona, Phoenix Rising doesn’t plan to build their stadium with a roof, believing they can keep both players and fans cool during the hot Arizona summer nights.
“We’ve made more progress with our stadium,” Johnson said. “We’ve gone out with the renderings and we worked extensively with the MLS to give them assurances and confidence that we’re addressing the heat.”
The 21,0000-seat stadium has been designed to keep the patrons and players cool with architectural ingenuity that includes a large canopy at the top for shading, and water walls the fans will pass through as they enter the stadium.
With the design for the stadium ready, only one more major item is left to cross off the list for Phoenix Rising.
“The last piece is we need to secure is shovel-ready land in a good location,” Johnson said. “We have several options that we’re currently in discussions with, including where we play right now. That’s where a great deal of our focus is off the field.”
Soccer in the Valley has come a long way. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for fans since Phoenix FC was dissolved after just one season and replaced by Arizona United Soccer Club.
Arizona United moved their home stadium from a central Tempe location to Peoria, more than 30 miles away from their first home.
Arizona United struggled with stability. They played their first season at Peoria Sports Complex, moved to Scottsdale Stadium their second season only to move back to Peoria for their final season as Arizona United.
After the 2016 season, the team was acquired by a new ownership group and re-branded to Phoenix Rising FC.
Stability has returned.
If Phoenix Rising makes the jump from the USL to the MLS, they day-to-day team operations wouldn’t change much.
The team already operates like a first division team off the field, players say, which would make for a smooth transition.
Defender Amadou Dia, who had two stints with two MLS teams, is impressed with how on par Phoenix Rising is with other MLS teams.
“Phoenix Rising is basically to me an MLS club,” Dia said. “The way we get treated, meals after practice, before practice, cryotherapy. Some teams don’t even have a partnership with cryotherapy in the MLS and we do. So the way we get treated here is basically an MLS team. I think we have the best set up out of all the USL teams.”
Assistant coach Blair Gavin, an Arizona native, also played with the team for two seasons.
He played for three MLS teams in his career and agrees that there isn’t a lot of disparity between Phoenix and other first division teams in the United States.
“With this club there’s not much of a difference,” Gavin said. “From a general operation standpoint, this team is on par with any of them. The standards that we have, the fields that we have, the staff that we’ve put together. Food after the training, the stretching, the recovery, we take care of our players as best as we possibly can. We want to make sure that every player is getting their maximum potential fulfilled.”
Dia has played in front of extraordinary atmospheres in his time in the MLS, he said, and he expects the in-game ambience in Phoenix to be just as good, if not better than, previous expansion teams.
“Our fanbase is really good,” he said. “I was lucky enough to play in the Sporting KC’s stadium our first couple years. Playing there, playing in Portland, Seattle, they’re all amazing stadiums. I get the same type of feeling in the environment here in Phoenix. We sell out most of our games here. Phoenix is a great city. Soccer is all that’s missing.”
Forward Chris Cortez is another player who has had a taste of MLS and doesn’t think Phoenix fans are far off from those he played in front of MLS.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s really enjoyable honestly. You get more hyped up for it, a bit more of an occasion. The atmosphere and everything is enjoyable. It’s contagious, especially at home. It’s that much louder but even here we have a great atmosphere and I think it’ll just become better.”
Cortez also believes Phoenix has the best possible ownership group to take the team to the next level.
“Our ownership group is incredibly awesome all around,” Cortez said. “They’re all very involved. They’re all great with us, they all know all of our names and come and say hi to us. Each owner brings an important aspect and they’re taking all the steps possible, and I know if anything was ever asked by MLS they would take care of it. They’ve showed how motivated they are and for us that motivates us as players to respond on the field.”
Johnson said, “We’ve already proven that the market is there. We have two outstanding supporter groups, as an MLS franchise, we’ll have no problem packing our stadium in. Most importantly we really do invest a lot of money in the quality of our product.
“We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”