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Phoenix Rising FC meets with Major League Soccer officials about possible expansion

Posted at 1:24 PM, Jul 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-25 19:38:49-04

Phoenix Rising FC officials met with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott in New York City on Wednesday to discuss the organization's "updated proposal" for a possible expansion franchise in the Valley.

"I think it was a great opportunity for us to showcase the significant advancements we’ve made as an organization relative to our application," Phoenix Rising general manager Bobby Dulle told ABC15. "We’ve come a long way in regards to our number of corporate partners, the media coverage, the brand exposure, and last but not least, it’s the fans. The fans have come out in droves to support what we’re doing and engaging with us.

"It’s very exciting to be able to show and prove that this market is not just an international exhibition market; it’s truly a market that’s open to professional soccer and growing leaps and bounds in the last year and a half."

Founded as Arizona United in 2014, the franchise rebranded as Phoenix Rising in 2016 and moved into a new 6,200-seat stadium near Tempe Marketplace. Its owners include Kona Grill CEO Berke Bakay, Chinese billionaire Alex Zheng and former Premier League star Didier Drogba.

"I think it was important for our ownership group to sit in there (Wednesday) and speak with their execs in the room," Dulle said.

The Phoenix Rising organization currently fields a team in the United Soccer League, a Division II professional league in the United States and Canada. Games played at their existing stadium, located across from Tempe Marketplace in Scottsdale, routinely sell out -- and despite a temperature of 100 degrees at kickoff, the team set a home attendance record of 7,381 Friday night in its 1-0 victory over Seattle Sounders 2.

It's that kind of die-hard fan support that Dulle said is one of the franchise's top selling points.

"I think it spoke volumes to the appetite for soccer in this market," he said. "It couldn’t have come at a better time to have a crowd like that, and I think it was eye-opening for people around town to understand with all the other events going on that night — concerts, baseball games, a night after an international exhibition (Manchester United vs. Club America in Glendale) — that we were able to draw a crowd like that in record heat."

Phoenix is one of 10 cities in the running for two remaining expansion MLS teams. In March, Phoenix Rising released artist renderings of what its 21,000-seat MLS stadium would look like. 

The proposed stadium wouldn't be a domed facility, but Phoenix Rising hired Populous, which has designed seven existing MLS stadiums, to find innovative ways of keeping the stadium cool during the hot summer months.

Phoenix Rising brought its lead architect from Populous to Wednesday's meeting explain the benefits of the stadium design.

"Heat mitigation is one of the driving forces behind the stadium design, and with that in mind, fan comfort and safety are at the top of the list," Dulle said. "Our lead architect was able to explain a lot of different concepts with regard to the design of the stadium that I think Major League Soccer was excited about, and of course we’re excited about, to make sure we check those boxes with regard to fan and player safety."

As far as where that stadium will be located? 

"We’re still in the process of exploring all of our options in regards to stadium sites," Dulle said. "It’s good to have options and we’re going to continue to look for a spot that makes sense for all parties."

Dulle isn't sure exactly where Phoenix Rising stands compared to the other nine cities that have submitted MLS proposals -- but after Wednesday's meeting, he believes his franchise is in tremendous position to bring a top-tier soccer team to the largest city in America without one.

"It’s hard to say where we specifically sit. We can only control what we can control," he said. "I think with our crowds this year averaging over 100 percent capacity, the corporate sponsors, the media exposure, the television ratings -- those things all help and will continue to help showcase what this market has to offer. 

"It’s a daily process to continue to have the fans come out and support us, continue to identify options for locations, continue to modify stadium design. It’s very fluid, and it’s a process we’re going to learn from MLS so we make sure we put ourselves in a position to have the strongest application out of the other nine cities that are competing right now for one of two spots."