SCOTTSDALE, AZ - As they prepare for their first-ever postseason game in Kansas City, Phoenix Rising FC's players and coaches are keenly aware of two facts:
1. Only four victories stand between themselves and a championship in the United Soccer League.
2. Only three years stand between the Valley and a potential Major League Soccer franchise.
Phoenix Rising knows accomplishing the former could only help move the Valley closer to the latter.
"For us, that’s part of it, too. "Everyone wants to support a winning team. Winning a championship brings that many more fans in," said Phoenix Rising forward Chris Cortez as his team prepares to face Swope Park Rangers in a first-round USL playoff matchup beginning Saturday at 5:30 Arizona time.
Phoenix Rising has played in the USL, a Division II league, since 2014. It is one of 12 organizations to place a bid for one of four expansion franchises that MLS, America's top-flight soccer league, is preparing to announce. Two of those franchises will be awarded in December and will begin play in 2020, with the other two likely to be announced next year and begin play in 2021.
Phoenix Rising, which underwent a total rebrand and moved from Peoria to Scottsdale before the beginning of the 2017 season, averaged 6,127 fans per home game at a stadium that was built in less than two months. They just missed out on playing in front of their home fans in Saturday's playoff game -- but if they win that game, they will host a second-round playoff matchup next weekend.
"That being said, we have to win the first one in order to put ourselves in that position," Cortez said. "Winning a championship, whether it’s on the road or here at home, that’s going to attract a lot of fans that want to come out next year, as well."
A USL title is hardly a pipe dream. Phoenix Rising has been playing championship-level soccer for the last two months.
The team faced some adversity early in the season due in part to a coaching shakeup that saw second-year boss Frank Yallop resign. But Phoenix Rising has arguably been the USL's most dominant team since August under the guidance of Patrice Carteron, who made his coaching debut on the same night world-renowned striker Didier Drogba debuted in a Phoenix Rising uniform.
Under Carteron, Phoenix Rising has 11 wins, three draws and just one loss in their last 15 regular-season games. They're currently riding a three-game winning streak, during which they've outscored their opponents by a 10-4 margin.
"I think we’re well organized and much better physically," Carteron said. "Right now, most of the players are doing better than at the start of the season.
"Everybody thought that the season was over, and we've (had) great performances for months, and now we’re playing in the playoffs, fifth position. It’s really a great performance."
Drogba joined the team as a player and co-owner in April. He, along with other key additions like midfielder Kevon Lambert, who helped lead Jamaica to a Gold Cup finals appearance in July, has made Phoenix Rising a team no one wants to face.
"I think once we finally figured out what Patrice wanted to do, and Patrice figured us out as players and the best system for us -- once that all kind of clicked, I think that’s when we really started our run," Cortez said.
"Defensively, we’ve done very well. We’ve gotten quite a few shutouts recently. We’ve been very hard to break down. And offensively, I think guys like (leading goal scorer Jason Johnson) and Didier up top that have been scoring a ton of goals for us, we always feel we’re very dangerous."
Lambert, who joined Phoenix Rising in August, said the team is "more like a unit now" than it was when he came aboard.
"I think the team is more bonded ... We’ve been working hard together. We’ve been more focused," he said. "We’re just going out there to do our best as always, and we’ll be going out there to win it. We’re in it to win it."
Carteron and his players know a USL championship wouldn't clinch an MLS team for the Valley, but it would put an exclamation point on an incredible season during which soccer's popularity in Arizona reached heights that didn't seem possible less than a year ago.
"There’s an amazing potential in Phoenix. When you realize this stadium had been built in less than two months, it means that people and the board members are so motivated," he said. "I really think there’s a place for Phoenix in MLS really soon."