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Despite missing first cut, Phoenix Rising still targeting MLS expansion

By - Dec 14, 2017

By Emily Wirtz/For The Sporting Nation

Phoenix will continue its quest for an expansion bid from the Major League Soccer expansion committee, after not making the first cut of four finalists for two franchises.

Recently MLS announced the four cities still in the running to be granted a bid. Phoenix was not selected as a finalist, but that won't stop Rising FC from seeking one of the next two bids that will be announced next year. 

The four finalist cities still in the running to receive an MLS team in future are Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento. 
Each of the finalist cities had one last chance to present their case for expansion to the committee on Dec. 6, and league owners met Thursday for a possible vote. 

MLS currently consists of 22 teams but is expanding gradually to 28 teams. According to, the criteria for being considered an ideal city for an expansion team consists of having “committed local ownership with a passion for the sport,” and “the resources to invest in infrastructure to build the sport in their respective market.”

Additional criteria include, “a market that has a history of strong fan support for soccer matches and other sporting events and a desirable geographic location.” Lastly, “a comprehensive stadium plan,” is required for a city to be considered an ideal candidate for expansion.  
Based on the MLS criteria, Phoenix appeard to have at least most of what MLS is looking for. The new team’s local ownership/investor group includes Kona Grill CEO Berke Bakay, who has been vocal in the effort to get Phoenix a professional soccer team; Didier Drogba, who joined the team as a player-owner; and DJ and music producer Diplo.

As far as strong fan support for soccer matches, Phoenix Rising FC has amassed loyal supporter’s groups—Los Bandidos and La Furia Roja that attend all of its games. 
Chad Smith, editor at, who regularly writes about MLS expansion, said “Demographics including a growing population, large media market, large Hispanic population and a large gap on the MLS map between Texas and Southern California are all reasons why Phoenix would serve as a good location for an MLS team.”

Smith has attended nearly every one of the club’s home games. 
Scottish-born Rising season ticket holder John McPherson has been looking for a soccer team to support since he moved to Phoenix in 2008. McPherson followed the team prior to its rebranding, when it was still under the name Arizona United SC. McPherson attended Rising home games and even a few away games this season.

McPherson said he enjoys the atmosphere in the stands, the singing, the humor, the energy and the camaraderie. “For players as well as fans, no matter your background, your color, your wealth, your politics or any of that, when we are together it is all about cheering on the team and having a good time,” McPherson said.

McPherson watches the games from the La Furia Roja supporter’s group section because of their “all around” support for the team. “Win, lose or draw, they are there to support the team,” he said.
Last on the list of MLS criteria is a comprehensive stadium plan. Rising FC currently plays in a “pop-up” stadium located on the border of Tempe and Scottsdale. This stadium seats more than 6,000 people and has VIP suites and locker rooms. If Rising FC does receive an expansion bid, a stadium at the current soccer complex would replace this stadium. 

The question is, does the club have a complete and impressive enough bid to sway MLS?
Sam Doerr, Rising’s vice president of marketing and sales, said the team’s recent rebranding helped make a case for Phoenix. “The rebranding and new ownership group is the reason Rising is being considered for expansion,” Doerr said. “What this team has pulled off in a year is nothing short of remarkable."
Phoenix Rising F.C underwent a massive rebranding that included renaming the team in 2016. Prior to 2016, the club was known as Arizona United Soccer Club.

With a new name and ownership group, Phoenix Rising acquired Ivorian soccer star Drogba as a player-owner. Drogba is well known in the international soccer community and his name alone helped in getting Phoenix Rising attention from fans and the MLS expansion committee.
Smith, who is also a Rising season ticket holder, said following Rising has become much easier since the club moved from Peoria to Tempe. He also believes the games being broadcasted on YouTube made it easier for fans to keep up with the team.
Chris Cortez, a forward for Phoenix Rising out of Mission Viejo, California, said playing for a team that is seeking expansion added more excitement than pressure this season. “It’s great to be a part of a club with so much promise,” Cortez said.

Cortez will be back in 2018 for Phoenix, having been re-signed.
Before playing for Phoenix Rising, Cortez played for Orange County Soccer Club in southern California. Cortez said playing for Rising has been different from other clubs he’s played for.

“The biggest thing for me was the phenomenal team we had last year (2017). It was great playing with so many legends of the game that I can now call friends," Cortez said.
Cortez’s personal goals for himself and the team have not changed since the club was not granted the most recent expansion, “My focus as a team is to win a championship. Individually I just try to do what I can to help the team achieve that. As far as being considered for an expansion team, obviously winning it all won't hurt the chances.” 
In the 2017 season, the 6-foot-2 forward tallied five goals and five assists for his team, ending the season third, following Jason Johnson and Drogba, in number of goals scored. 
Cortez also acknowledged how much the new ownership group has done for the club, considering its status as a relatively new team. “Our ownership group has done so much in so little time to help put our team on the map. They have done and continue to do so many things for us as players and for the club,” said Cortez. 
One thing that is unanimously agreed on is how impactful the new ownership group has been. Players and fans alike could not praise the group more. Smith credits the group as “the most important thing in the expansion quest. “They are committed to being competitive,” Smith said. 
Smith believes that finances are holding Rising back compared to the four cities chosen as finalists for the first two bids. “Three of the other four bids have billionaire owners. Detroit has three of them,” Smith said. Detroit’s billionaire backers consist of the owners of the Detroit Pistons, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Lions. 
Doerr also said Phoenix would be an ideal city for an MLS team. “Why not Phoenix? We check all the boxes, ownership group, demographic, stadium, TV market.”
Phoenix is currently the largest market in the country without an MLS team. 
Overall, Rising finished the regular 2017 season with an impressive 17-8-7 record. Rising lost to the Swope Park Rangers from Kansas City 4-2 in penalty kicks to knock them out of the playoffs in October. 
Drogba, the former Chelsea star and Rising FC forward, recently announced that next season would be his last as a player. Drogba is largely responsible for the amount of attention Rising received during its first year under the new name. His arrival made international soccer news.

With Drogba’s retirement looming, the club plans on “celebrating his career and accomplishments but also sending him out with a trophy,” according to Doerr. “We will of course do multiple things throughout the year to celebrate him and would encourage fans to take the opportunity to see his last professional season.”
Despite Drogba’s star qualities and attractive fan base, Phoenix Rising FC is looking to brand and develop the team as a whole rather than focusing on any one individual. Doerr said the team strives to be seen as a “lifestyle brand that embraces Phoenix and its diverse population.” He also added, “We are a club where everyone is welcome, we can be the team everyone in the Valley roots for.”
As far as the club’s belief in their expansion, Doerr said, “Nothing has changed on our end, they will be awarding two more spots in early 2018 and we feel good about where we stand in the chase for those two spots. We plan to release more details about our enhanced bid for an expansion slot in early 2018.” 


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