Phoenix Rising sees future with Major League Soccer
June 18, 2018
By Andrew Millan
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 at Phoenix Rising FC Soccer Complex in Scottsdale and is part 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 question 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 21,000-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 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.”
If Phoenix Rising makes the jump from the USL to the MLS, the 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.”
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 fan base 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.”
– Andrew Millan is a reporter for Cronkite News