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Phoenix Rising: 5 things you should know before they play for the championship

Posted at 1:09 PM, Nov 07, 2018

You've driven by the stadium on the Loop 202 a bunch of times -- the one that seemed to pop up overnight early last year.

You've seen a Phoenix Rising bumper sticker here, a t-shirt there, and maybe even seen a highlight or two on TV.

You're still not really sure what all the fuss regarding Phoenix Rising Football Club is all about. Heck, you might not even be a soccer fan. But you've heard about Rising's run to Thursday night's championship game, and you've developed at least a slight interest in learning more about the team before that match.

SEE ALSO: Phoenix Rising to host USL Cup final watch party in Tempe

It's not too late to climb aboard the bandwagon before Thursday night's United Soccer League Cup final at Louisville City. Here are five key facts you should know about Phoenix Rising FC before that matchup.

1. They took off when they rebranded last year.

Phoenix Rising was originally founded as Arizona United Soccer Club in 2014. A member of the United Soccer League, the second tier of North American soccer, the team found a moderate amount of success while playing its home games primarily in the West Valley.

But before the 2017 season, the team was sold by founder Kyle Eng to a group of investors led by Kona Grill CEO Berke Bakay. The team was rebranded as Phoenix Rising Football Club, complete with a new logo and uniforms. A 6,200-seat stadium was constructed in less than two months on a 15.8-acre piece of land in Tempe across the 202 from Tempe Marketplace.

Since that time, Rising has enjoyed some of the top attendance numbers among all USL teams, often selling more tickets than seats available. They set back-to-back records by having 7,511 and 7,707 fans come out to their two home playoff games last month. And last weekend, hundreds of supporters traveled with Rising to cheer the team on to victory over Orange County SC in the USL Western Conference final.

2. They have some big-time investors.

Along with Bakay, Phoenix Rising's ownership group is quite a who's-who list of big names. MLB pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who played for the Diamondbacks from 2013-14, is a minority owner, along with Fallout Boy bassist Pete Wentz, former PetSmart CEO David Lenhardt, Mia Piuma chairman Tim Riester and former Chelsea FC star Didier Drogba.

Why have so many high-profile people invested in a second-division pro soccer club? See No. 5 on this list. And speaking of Drogba:

3. Drogba, the legend.

On a national level, Larry Fitzgerald is the most well-known professional athlete in the Valley. Globally, it's Didier Drogba, and it's not even close.

No exaggeration: Drogba is a worldwide soccer legend. He has won over a dozen major championships -- including four English Premier League titles with Chelsea, one of the world's most prestigious clubs -- and he has been named to ESPN's "World Fame 100" list. Last year, Drogba joined Rising as a player and a co-owner -- and on Thursday, the 40-year-old will play in his final professional soccer game.

Drogba has scored a goal in all three of Rising's wins during its current postseason run. Does the legend have one more big-time performance left in him?

4. Their coach is AZ-born and raised.

Rising's run to the USL Cup final is all the more impressive when you consider the team is playing for an interim head coach. Assistant coach Rick Schantz took over when previous coach Patrice Carteron left the team to become head coach of an Egyptian team in June.

Schantz was born in Yuma and played soccer at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson. He played professional soccer in the Pacific Northwest before becoming head coach of Premier Development League team FC Tucson. He led Tucson to a 71-22-17 record during his time at the helm, and joined Rising's staff before the 2017 season.

"It means a lot. For my family, it’s everything," Schantz said Monday about Rising's playoff run. "We packed up two years ago from Tucson, where things were easy and good and we liked our lives. I said to my wife, 'Are you ready? We don’t know where we’ll be in two years, but let’s give it a go.' Little did I know that it would end up like this."

5. This is an audition for something bigger.

So, why have so many prominent folks with deep pockets invested in this club? Because they hope it's a path to bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to the Valley.

Phoenix is one of 10 cities in the mix for one of two remaining expansion MLS franchises -- and according to at least one source, Rising is among the favorites. Rising's application has certainly been boosted by this current USL playoff run (MLS officials attended Rising's first-round playoff matchup in Tempe), as well as voters in San Diego turning down a proposed MLS stadium in Tuesday's election.

Rising still has some questions to answer regarding a possible MLS team, including where an MLS-sized stadium would be located in the Valley. But it already has a plan for what that stadium will look like, and the Valley's large millennial and Latino populations seem to bode well for the prosperity of an MLS club in Phoenix. 

"You see the buzz, the excitement on social media with our fans," Rising general manager Bobby Dulle said. "There’s a lot of excitement right now, and a run in the postseason certainly helps our cause."