MLS to Phoenix: The status of Phoenix Rising’s bid

Phoenix Rising FC during its 4-1 win over the Oklahoma City Energy Saturday, March 24. (Photo Courtesy of Aaron Blau)

A simple phone call could be responsible for changing soccer history in Arizona.

It was 2017 and the newly-founded United Soccer League team Phoenix Rising was in disarray. Head Coach Frank Yallop had just resigned in order to spend more time with his family in California.

The celebrity-owned club was left without a coach with the United Soccer League season underway. But they did have one thing: star power.

Rising forward and iconic Chelsea player Didier Drogba picked up the phone and called French head coach Patrice Carteron, an old friend of his. Coach Carteron visited Phoenix for what initially was supposed to be only a few days on what he said was vacation. That visit turned into a permanent stay.

He took over Rising as head coach in May 2017 and began to build the team into a USL contender with one big dream: Major League Soccer.

“A town like Phoenix, I don’t see how MLS can’t think about Phoenix joining MLS as soon as possible,” Coach Carteron said. “We have a fantastic governor, we have fantastic board members, we have fantastic fans.”

Last March, Los Angeles Football Club debuted in MLS as its 23rd team. Nashville and Miami locked down spots No. 24 and 25 with spot No. 26 going either Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento.

Phoenix will contend for spots No. 27 and 28 with 10 other cities.

Coach Carteron said Phoenix is a big favorite to become part of the U.S. soccer elite and that MLS needs Rising.

“The only obstacle is a matter of time,” he said. “Some teams have been preparing this process earlier than Phoenix. That’s the only reason why. When I see what’s been done here in the past year, it’s been absolutely amazing.”

Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Patrice Carteron. (Submitted Photo)

Rising vice president of marketing and sales Sam Doerr said the team is confident MLS wants and needs the Phoenix market.

“I think they’d (MLS) would be crazy not to want the market,” he said.

The Valley houses four professional sports teams, with Rising vying to be the fifth. Interest for soccer in the Valley is evidenced by the high attendance records at Rising games and constant sellouts at international exhibition matches.

Also, soccer is now the country’s fourth most popular sport, according to a 2018 Gallup poll with an upward trajectory.

Its popularity rose 7 percent, compared to a 2 percent decrease in football, a 1 percent decrease in basketball, a 4 percent decrease in baseball and a 1 percent increase in hockey, according to the poll.

In the past year and a half, Rising rebranded from the now-extinct Arizona United SC, built a 6,200-seat stadium, brought on Drogba as a player and co-owner, solidified an ownership group and presented an MLS bid.

Rising added foreign billionaire investor Alex Zheng to the club ownership group last February in an attempt to bolster its MLS bid.

Mr. Zheng is also an investor in French Ligue 1 club OGC Nice. His capital will come in handy for Rising, with expansion fees alone bordering $150 million, according to MLS.

That’s how much the league said teams No. 25 and 26 will have to pay to become part of the top tier of U.S. soccer.

Mr. Doerr said he believes there is nothing stopping Phoenix from joining MLS, since it already has foreign investment, a stadium design and an appealing media market.

Phoenix is the largest market of those applying to MLS, coming in at No. 11, according to the 2017-2018 Nielsen rankings. Cincinnati is 35th, Detroit is 14th and Sacramento is 20th.

Rough ride

The Phoenix MLS dream had a rocky beginning as other cities moved forward in the process ahead of Phoenix. That initial rejection isn’t stopping the franchise, according to Rising Chief Operating Officer Bobby Dulle.

“I think it’s important to keep the momentum and message out there that we’re continuing to push, putting all the ingredients in place to hopefully secure a spot in Major League Soccer,” Mr. Dulle said.

Mr. Doerr said Rising’s main competition for spots No. 27 and 28 are the two finalists who don’t make the cut for No. 26 as well as San Diego.

Cincinnati is one of the frontrunners for spot No. 26 because of its high home attendance record average of 21,199 for the 2017 USL season, a league record.

For comparison, Rising averaged 6,127 fans in 2017, albeit in a stadium much smaller. FC Cincinnati plays in Nippert Stadium, home of the University of Cincinnati football team.

In early April, the FC Cincinnati board and the city council agreed to a deal for the eventual MLS stadium in downtown Cincinnati. The club, whose majority owner is millionaire Carl Lindner III, will hope that is enough to overcome the media market Cincinnati is in compared to its MLS bid rivals.

MLS’s timeline of announcing its next franchise or the next finalists isn’t clear, but the league said it should be sometime soon.

The league, however, hasn’t stuck to timelines in the past as MLS commissioner Don Garber said in December 2017 the league would “without a doubt” announce the 26th team before the start of the MLS season in March.

“We’re ready. If it comes tomorrow, we’re ready. If it comes in two years, we’re ready. If it comes in six months, we’re ready. We’ll be ready whenever that time comes,” Mr. Doerr said.

If the team reaches the MLS, Rising-owned FC Tucson would replace them and would serve as an option for players who don’t reach MLS level, according to Mr. Doerr. FC Tucson plays in the Premier Development League, the fourth tier of U.S. soccer.

In the meantime, MLS isn’t a daily obsession within the club, Mr. Doerr said.

“We’re trying to be the best club we can be and as long as we’re that I think we’re going to have success,” he said.

A rendering of Phoenix Rising’s proposed stadium that would go in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community across the freeway from Tempe Marketplace. (Submitted Photo)

The stadium

A major building block of Rising’s most recent MLS bid came in March with the release of the proposed MLS stadium renderings. The stadium features an open roof, water walls to prevent heat from entering and shaded seats.

After meetings with different architectural firms in the summer of 2017, Rising chose Populous and partnered the firm with Phoenix-based design firm Gould Evans.

Populous has designed seven MLS stadiums. This will be Gould Evans’ first foray into a soccer-specific stadium.

Even though Rising is keeping other possible stadium locations open, the proposed arena will likely go around the existing stadium off near Loops 202 and 101 interchange in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The stadium will be built asymmetrically, with the intention of providing shade for the majority of the seats, according to the club press release. It also contains canopies that will cover the stadium in order to maximize airflow and cool off the temperature in an efficient manner.

The approximate cost to build the 21,000-seat stadium is $250 million and will be privately funded, Mr. Dulle confirmed. The SRPMIC and tribal developer Solana Group own the land where the current Rising stadium stands.

MLS has approved the design, according to Mr. Doerr. Mr. Dulle said the response on the renderings was fantastic and Rising has all the ingredients to secure an MLS spot.

“We have a great market in Phoenix. … We have a proven large sporting event market. We have fantastic weather,” he said.

Weather was a serious consideration when designing the proposed stadium.

“The first thing we always do in the desert is orient the building in a proper manner. Shade becomes incredibly important as well as increasing the amount of ventilation possible,” Krista Shepherd, principal at Gould Evans, said.

Ms. Shepherd said both firms decided against a dome instead of an open air stadium primarily because it wanted natural grass.

“We’re just really excited to be able to work with Phoenix Rising to help bring an MLS franchise to our town,” Ms. Shepherd said.

The fans have spoken

#MLS2PHX, the hashtag visible in posters at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex and, in social media, is the banner its fans wave to support the move to the upper division.

A view from Phoenix Rising’s Red Fury fan section. (Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Ávila)

Its fans, who form the official supporter groups the Red Fury and Los Bandidos are passionate about the possible move.

“It’s not even an if, it’s a when. We will be an MLS team. We deserve to be an MLS team because we’ve got the fans, we’ve got the stadium plans, we’ve got the backing, we’ve got everything that it takes,” Rick Taylor, one of the co-hosts of the PRFC Fan Show, a YouTube fan show covering Rising, said.

He said Phoenix is a “tier one” sports city and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be part of MLS.

When asked what Rising need to make that a reality, Mr. Taylor agreed with Carteron. “Just time,” he said.

Roger Denman is a season ticket holder and has followed professional soccer in Phoenix since 2012. He said MLS is a nice idea, but Rising needs more fan support.

“I think we should and the main thing is we need people to come out and support the team as it is right now and not wait for them to become an MLS franchise because that’s not how it happens,” Mr. Denman said.

Travis McBride is from Michigan, a state without first division professional soccer. The 2018 season is his second as a season ticket holder and has been following soccer in Arizona for four years.

“I want it. So bad. I’m so mad we didn’t get it this year but it’ll come,” he said in regards to the MLS bid.

Another season ticket holder is Jordan Jannis and his wife, Shannon.

“We came to the first game last year and we walked away and said: we need to get season tickets. After the first game we bought season tickets and the rest is history,” Mr. Jannis said.

Mr. Jannis said he is ready to buy season tickets in case Rising were to join MLS.

“(MLS) is absolutely a great idea. We’re so excited about it,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Ricardo Ávila is a student-journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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