Old Drog, New Tricks
Didier Drogba and his attempt to establish Phoenix as an MLS side
As a stirring rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” bellows from the ample sound system, a familiar figure in a very unfamiliar setting stands bolt upright at the end of the line of players, his jaw jutting out and his eyes brimming with determination.
It is a view of Didier Drogba's face seen hundreds of times before across the world’s great football theatres, but this is not Wembley, the Allianz Arena or Stamford Bridge. It is a temporary 6,200-seater ‘pop-up’ stadium within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.
The venue is about half-full and the sound of the crowd is muffled by two columns of landing aircraft that roar overhead on their way to the city’s Sky Harbour Airport just a few miles away.
Drogba was a Champions League winner with Chelsea, a late bloomer who would go on to become a club legend. To see him in this modest environment takes some getting used to, but he is a man with a plan and is at Phoenix Rising to make the transition from the pitch to the boardroom.
Whatever the circumstances, he looks as ready for the battle as ever when the national anthem comes to an end. It was sung passionately and the flags flew at half-mast behind the players. The game is being played just days after a massacre in Las Vegas in which a gunman killed 58 people at a music concert.
The fixture is against Tulsa Roughnecks in the United Soccer League, one of two second-tier competitions in America, and the play is frenetic. There is lots of hustle and bustle but not much quality. Drogba scores a trademark header as he rises above the defender to nod the ball home, before later adding a penalty.
With half an hour gone, and both teams defending poorly, the score is 3-3. It is clear who the star attraction is for the sparse crowd. Drogba’s every touch is cheered and the sense of anticipation every time he is on the ball is palpable. The club’s small group of ‘ultras’, Los Bandidos, are noisy throughout and in the end the home side secure a 4-3 victory on their way to reaching the end of season play-offs.
Drogba will finish the year with 10 goals in 13 starts for the side, but that is almost an aside to his real purpose in Phoenix. The former Côte d’Ivoire international has joined the club as co-owner, a minority shareholder among of a large group of investors that includes Pete Wentz, the bassist for the American rock group Fall Out Boy, and the world-renowned DJ Diplo, as well as local businessmen, surgeons and bankers.
“When I had this offer, I was thinking, ‘Well, I have been a player before, but never an owner,’ so it’s a good challenge,” Drogba said. “It’s interesting for the future and what I would possibly want to do when I stop playing. I am going to be 40 in March, so it’s about time to think about what’s next. To apply what I was thinking a few years ago.”
Drogba has been drafted in to provide some footballing gravitas, as both a player and an ambassador for the club. Phoenix Rising are one of 12 teams hoping to win one of the four places in the next expansion of Major League Soccer, which will be complete by 2021.
The club did not exist two years ago, but has ambitions to be among the country’s elite. Phoenix is the largest city in the United States without an MLS team. “It’s an amazing project here, to build a team from scratch and apply for an MLS licence,” Drogba said. “To be part of the biggest league in America, it’s a good challenge.
“I played before in this league with Montreal [Impact] and I had time to understand the league and the challenges, and to see how this opportunity could become a big one. That’s why I came here, to try to make history.”
Drogba added that he is enjoying being in the boardroom. “This opportunity is amazing because it puts me straight into what I want to learn. I enjoy more the fact that I am learning a lot about the other side of the game which is very important.”
The Phoenix club have missed out on the first two expansion slots that were decided in December 2017, but remain hopeful of winning the next couple that will be decided sometime in 2018. Drogba was brought to the club by Berke Bakay, a Turkish-born Phoenix local who owns a successful chain of restaurants. Bakay’s uncle is on the board of the Istanbul club Galatasaray, where Drogba played in the 2013-14 season, and it was there that the connection was made.
“It’s amazing to call someone your partner who has been on the cover of TIME magazine and been named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world,” Bakay said. “As recently as a few months ago ESPN picked him among the top 100 most famous athletes in the world and he is the only one from Arizona. Think about that, you’ve got [American] Football, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, you’ve got a lot of professional athletes in Arizona, but he’s the only one to make ESPN’s list.”
Bakay went on to explain the merits of having an MLS side in the city. “If you look at what gets you there [into the MLS], it is really about having the right market. You need the right ingredients.
“Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the United States and out of the 12 bidding cities it has one of the largest, if not the largest, media market, which is very important for what it can do for the other teams because obviously it brings the value of the media contract up.
“Our attendance figures are close to 400% higher from a year ago, we have brought in world stars such as Didier Drogba and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and it is a treat for our fans to be able to really enjoy them.
“Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in this country, so to be able to bring that in a professional level in Phoenix really excites me.”
The club have the land, financing and plans in place for a purpose-built football stadium on the same site as their temporary home. “A year ago none of this was here, including our [temporary] stadium which was built from the ground up in 52 days,” Bakay said. “I don’t know where else could achieve that when you think about the permitting and everything else that goes into it, so it shows we have great support.
“We will build a permanent stadium on this site, subject to our MLS bid. I am not sure of the capacity yet, we are still professionally assessing the requirements, but I would think it would be around 23,000."
The major drawback for many when it comes to Phoenix is the heat of the Sonoran Desert – even in early October the temperature is touching 40°C. But the club point out that it is a ‘dry’ heat, far less dangerous than the humidity of Houston, for example, a city that does have an MLS side.
Bakay has one passing shot, saying he believes it is a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Phoenix will be handed a place in the top division. “I can’t imagine Major League Soccer without having one of the largest cities in the United States being part of that,” he said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, I’m very humbled by the whole experience and I cannot talk to the timing of it, but it will happen.”
At training the day before the match with Tulsa, Drogba was all smiles and he genuinely appeared to be enjoying himself. It bodes well for what is likely to be the final year of his playing career in 2018. “I’m having fun and that’s really what keeps me playing because my teammates are great and I feel like a kid when I see the ball. I’m still a competitor,” he said after the session. “I don’t think that is something I will lose one day. The physique is OK, so I will carry on playing.”
Asked about whether he feels a responsibility to act as a mentor to what is essentially a young squad dotted with a few veterans, Drogba lost the smile. “I feel lucky to be able to share my experience,” he said. “I am in a position where I want to share what I did, what I had before … I want them to know where I am coming from because they have only seen me on TV.
“I want them to know what happened 10 or 20 years before, when I was struggling. It is important to send them the message that, OK, I won the Champions League, I won many leagues in England, but before that I was always injured, I was struggling to make it into the first team.
“I was ambitious, I could say I was already talented, but the brain wasn’t in the same place as the legs. I was young, I was enjoying my life, but then I decided to focus on football and make it my job, a real job, and everything changed.
“By then I was 20 or 21, so really these kids, these young players here … I am here to let them know that they still have a chance.”
Drogba’s former Chelsea teammate, Wright-Phillips, is another of the experienced individuals in Phoenix. He laughed at the suggestion he must have enjoyed being reunited with the striker and says the other players have not given the Ivorian an easy ride.
“I would like to say he was reunited with me!” Wright-Phillips said. “We have always got on really well and it has been great for everybody because he has come in and demanded things from us and we have also demanded things of him. It gives everybody that extra spur on.”
Wright-Phillips said he too was intrigued by the project in Phoenix when he signed for the club in February 2017. “My contract ran out at New York Red Bulls, they wanted to go a bit younger and we parted ways. Frank [Yallop, the former Phoenix Rising coach] asked me to come out and have a look around.
“After learning more about the club I thought it was something that I wanted to be part of, to help it get to where it wants to go to.”
Once blessed with the blistering pace to take on fullbacks on the wing, the 36 year old claimed he is now a playmaker. “I’m more of a passer these days,” he said with a chuckle. “When I was younger I used to be just very direct, but now I only tend to dribble if I have to or there is a one-on-one situation.”
Drogba added that his success through his playing career has surprised him, even if he did always know he would make it as a professional. “I am beyond satisfied,” he said. “Of course I was dreaming of becoming a footballer, playing in big stadiums, 60,000 people and all that, but I never thought that I would go so far.
“Even if I had the dream, even if I had the desire to succeed … for me football has always been my passion and not my job. Maybe that is why I am still enjoying it now.”
Pressed on moments of his career that stand out in his mind, he was silent for a while, lost in thought, before the smile returned and he spoke with confidence. “My first goals as a professional player, I scored twice [for Le Mans against Cannes in Ligue 2 in August 1999],” he said. “Then the year I spent in Marseille. I had the chance, as a Marseille fan, to play in that stadium and it was a dream come true. It is something very special to me.”
Drogba was already 26 when he joined Chelsea in 2004 and would go on to win four Premier League titles and four FA Cup winners’ medals, along with the Champions League. It is hard for him to pull out one moment from his time in south west London. “Chelsea … not only the Champions League, but Chelsea the club, the people, the games we lost, the games we won, those years are very special as well.”
Drogba was also instrumental in bringing the coach Patrice Carteron to Phoenix Rising. He describes Carteron as a friend who has helped him as a mentor in various stages of his career. Carteron was a steady defender of some repute in Ligue 1 with Stade Rennais, Olympique Lyonnais and most notably Saint-Étienne, while he also had a brief loan spell in the Premier League with Sunderland at the end of the 2000-01 season. He made his Sunderland debut in a 4-2 win at Chelsea and scored in a 1-1 Tyne–Wear derby draw against Newcastle United to make some impact in his eight-game stay in the North East.
Carteron has perhaps been more successful as a coach, particularly on the African continent. He took Mali to third in the 2013 African Cup of Nations and to number 21 in the Fifa World Rankings, their highest ever placing. He also won the 2015 African Champions League with Democratic Republic of Congo side Tout Puissant Mazembe, a notoriously difficult trophy to lift given the hardships of travel, erratic playing surfaces and the skulduggery that goes on with match officials.
His best friend has been a personal trainer of Drogba’s for many years and so the two have struck up a friendship that included Carteron providing some one-on-one coaching ahead of “big games”, as Drogba terms them. “I am learning a lot with him, the experiences he had as a coach and a manager in France and in Africa,” Drogba said. “He is a friend, so it always easier when you work with a friend who is talented and has the skills.
“You can see that in what he did since he came here, we won I don’t know how many consecutive games and we had one of the best defences in the league. He did a great job because it wasn’t easy.”
Carteron himself admits he was drawn to Phoenix Rising not just by the project, but the chance also to work in a formal capacity with Drogba. “I used to work individually with him to prepare for Champions League games and that kind of thing,” Carteron said. “He’s a natural leader, all the players want to learn from him.
“One of my motivations was also to be his last coach. I said to myself that when you have that kind of opportunity, it is rare in your life that you can coach somebody like Didier Drogba, so I was very happy and proud to come and work with him every day. You have to pay attention of course because he is close to 40 years old, but he is always very motivated and leads by example every day in training.”
Carteron has already used his connections to bring the Ghana midfielder Gladson Awako, a former player of his with Mazembe, to the club and both he and Drogba hope to sign more Africans. “The league already has a lot of African players, but I hope my presence here will be an opportunity to bring more players and give them an opportunity to get better contracts, to get respected and to have a chance in their life. It’s what it’s about,” Drogba said. “People say, ‘football players are making money’, but it is actually a way to deliver from this [hardship], it’s their life. It’s a different job but they still have to work to earn their money.”
Carteron agrees and said although the standard of football might not be the same as in Europe, the lifestyle offered by the chance to play in the league is attractive. “There are so many talented players in Africa and I know most of them are very motivated to join us and come to the United States because for everybody on earth, they want to come one day to the United States,” he said.
The French coach says that just as Drogba and his co-owners are trying to build a club in the boardroom, he is attempting to put in place the footballing culture and facilities. In what is a ‘closed division’ with no promotion or relegation, he is able to do that without pressure.
“In a club like Mazembe, every game is very important and you have to win it because it is just a matter of immediate results,” he said. “We are thinking differently right now. The difference is that at Phoenix Rising we are building something for the future. The philosophy is totally different, we are in a closed division, it is not as if we had to reach one of the top two places to get into MLS.
“Of course we want to be competitive, we want to win every game, but more than this it is important to have a philosophy for the club, I want the fans to come to the stadium and see a very offensive team, I want them to see goals.
“I also have more work outside the pitch than I did in Mazembe. There we had a 20,000-seater stadium and everything in place. Here we are building the club to go to the MLS as soon as possible.”