When he began his coaching career in Tucson, Arizona native Rick Schantz said the market for soccer in the state was as barren as the desert itself.
"There was nothing for kids to kind of go see firsthand and to look up to," said Schantz, Phoenix Rising FC's interim head coach. "But over 20 years, it’s really developed."
Today, Arizona is home to several professional and semi-pro soccer clubs, including Phoenix Rising, which competes in the United Soccer League, the second tier of American soccer. That rapid growth has fueled Rising's impressive ownership group, which includes soccer legend and current Rising striker Didier Drogba, in its effort to bring a top-tier soccer club to the desert, as Phoenix is one of 10 cities competing for two remaining expansion Major League Soccer franchises.
"Phoenix Rising, FC Tucson, Sporting Arizona — there’s a lot of people that have put a lot of effort into kind of growing the game from the highest level, and I’ve seen it develop and grow," Schantz said. "Now we have more kids playing than ever before, and it’s really organized and really exciting."
Last Friday, Phoenix Rising won its first-ever playoff game, a 3-0 shutout over Portland Timbers 2 in front of a record 7,511 fans who made their voices heard throughout the evening. Rising is now preparing to host Swope Park Rangers -- the team that denied them their first-ever playoff victory last season -- in a USL Western Conference semifinal matchup Friday, and tickets are once again going fast.
"By far it was the best environment we’ve had out here so far," Phoenix Rising defender Joe Farrell said about the fan support during last week's win. "But I’m hoping this week it’s the same level, if not even higher."
Since its rebranding and move to the East Valley less than two years ago, Rising has averaged over 6,000 fans per game at its 6,200-seat stadium located across the Loop 202 from Tempe Marketplace. The team is preparing for another standing-room-only crowd for Friday's playoff matchup.
That element, along with its playoff success, should only serve to boost Rising's MLS bid.
"It’s a great extension of the season. It’s great for the brand," Phoenix Rising general manager Bobby Dulle said. "You see the buzz, the excitement on social media with our fans. There’s a lot of excitement right now, and a run in the postseason certainly helps our cause."
In July, Phoenix Rising's ownership group traveled to New York City to meet with MLS officials to discuss their pitch for an expansion club. Last week, Rising returned the favor by hosting MLS officials at Friday's playoff match.
Dulle said the timing of the visit couldn't have been more perfect.
"Our crowd came out and they showed the appetite for professional soccer here in this market," he said. "The level of play on the field and the passion and the energy, and everyone wearing our jerseys and chanting and singing -- I think they came away very impressed, all in all, from Friday night."
Rising's success also comes at a time when Valley sports fans are starved for a winner. With the Diamondbacks missing the playoffs, the Cardinals trending in the wrong direction and the Suns and Coyotes still very much works in progress, Farrell knows his team has a tremendous opportunity in front of it.
"I believe there’s a lot of people in the area that are looking for a winning team, looking for something that can inspire them to be their best. That’s what we’re trying to bring to the Phoenix-Valley area," he said. "Hopefully we can do that this weekend and keep going on and earn another week of play."
Phoenix Rising's USL playoff run won't necessarily make or break its chances to land an MLS team. But Schantz knows more postseason appearances will give the club more chances to remind MLS decision makers just how passionate Arizona soccer fans are -- and just how much the sport has grown in the state since he began his coaching career two decades ago.
"I think it’s important to have a winning culture and a winning club. The more we win and the more we’re competitive, people notice us," he said. "I think that’s the biggest thing, is getting everyone in Phoenix to understand they have something really special here in the Valley."