Phoenix Rising heads in to 2018 season building on prior successes

Midfielder James Musa dribbles the ball at a Phoenix Rising practice. (Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Ávila)

When forward Didier Drogba’s goal in the 99th minute gave Phoenix Rising the lead in the 2017 United Soccer League Western Conference Quarterfinal, it seemed the fairy tale had just begun.

The team that stood 12 out of 15 halfway through the USL season managed to climb to the fifth spot and had regional powerhouse Swope Park Rangers up against the wall.

But along came the 108th minute and the Rangers’ equalizing goal. Then came penalty kicks. And just like that, Rising’s inaugural season was over.

Four months and more than a dozen new signings later, the team appears rejuvenated and with the desire to overcome last season’s partial success.

“We wanted to keep the best players and want them to compete with new players,” Rising Head Coach Patrice Carteron said. “The motivation will be to be a champion this season.”

Patrice Carteron

Coach Carteron said Rising’s objective is to finish in the top four of the Western Conference to secure home playoff games. Last year, they finished fifth, with a 17-8-8 record.

He said Rising would’ve won the playoff game against Swope Park Rangers had they been playing at home.

“Offensively we have a lot of potential,” Carteron said.

With team captain Drogba leading the way, that potential includes new signing Billy Forbes. The midfielder led San Antonio FC with 10 goals and nine assists in 2017 and was named USL All-League Second Team.

“I think we can go really far,” Forbes said. “This year is a testimony to the kind of players they (Rising) bring.”

The first step towards the championship is making the playoffs, according to Forbes, who said there is a lot to play for in the upcoming season. He said the professionalism of the club is why Rising is a step ahead of other teams in the league.

Foward Kevaughn Frater, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks’ leading scorer in 2017 with 12 goals, joined Forbes as a new Rising player. Along with midfielder Solomon Asante and defender Yaw Frimpong, who arrived from Coach Carteron’s previous team, Congolese outfit TP Mazembe.

Another high profile signing is New Zealand international midfielder James Musa, who played for Swope Park Rangers last season, starting 25 games and earning the team’s most valuable player award. Musa is one of two injured players in the Rising squad, the other one being goalkeeper John Berner.

Coach Carteron said both players were injured before arriving to Phoenix and said Musa won’t be ready for a couple of weeks.

The first game of the USL season was Saturday, March 17, against Orange County SC in California where the two team played to a 1-1 draw.

Rising’s road to this season’s inaugural USL game was not ideal in terms of results: one win out of six games. It all started with the Mobile Mini Cup.

The preseason tournament featured games against MLS outfits New York Red Bulls twice, Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo.

Four losses in five games against first division opponents in February followed Rising to Ecuador, where it faced Ecuadorian soccer giants LDU Quito in its home stadium.

The nearly 42,000-seat capacity Estadio Rodrigo Paz Delgado hosted Rising in a 2-2 tie that ended in another penalty kick defeat for the Arizona club.

Despite the preseason losses, forward and team vice captain Chris Cortez said the team bonded a lot in the Ecuador trip and got to know each other a lot better.

“I think we can win it all,” Cortez said. “We’re all learning each other’s subtleties and learning what we want.”

Cortez scored five goals in the 2017 season but said he doesn’t care about his personal statistics as long as the team does well.

The main difference between the team this year and the team last year is experience, according to both Coach Carteron and Cortez.

“We had a lot of players with experience,” Coach Carteron said. “I wanted to build something for the present and for the future. It’s important also that we have more young players.”

Cortez said that although the team learned a lot from its most accomplished players, it is still full of quality and of many who have already proven themselves in the league.

One of the most accomplished players on the team is Drogba. The 2018 season will be his last as a professional player. Coach Carteron said the decorated forward is very motivated to face the challenge of raising the USL Cup.

“Of course we know it will be very difficult but I want my players to feel I believe in them,” Coach Carteron said. “I want us to be champions this season.”

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

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