SCOTTSDALE — When Didier Drogba arrived in the Valley as soccer’s first player-owner, he made a promise to Phoenix Rising FC and its fans.
“We are going to win a lot of games here,” Drogba told a sold-out crowd during his unveiling ceremony in April. “And together, Phoenix is going to be in the MLS.”
So far, so good.
Drogba inspired the Rising to a 2-1 home win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 on Saturday night in his long-awaited debut for the club. The 39-year-old striker scored the opening goal and added an assist on the eventual game-winner by Shaun Wright-Phillips, his former teammate at Chelsea FC of the English Premier League.
More than 7,000 fans crowded into Phoenix Rising’s temporary stadium, the majority clad in Rising red or Chelsea blue, with Drogba’s famous No. 11 predominantly featured on their backs. They came early for warm-ups and waited around after the final whistle hoping for an autograph or a picture with their hero.
Drogba, who has scored more than 200 goals in his career for club and country and was recently ranked 80th on ESPN’s list of the most famous athletes in the world, smiled in selfies and signed jerseys of both colors after adding another goal to his impressive resume.
After the game, Wright-Phillips expressed his excitement at rekindling his chemistry with Drogba and praised the Ivorian’s impact on the entire franchise.
“I think not only for me, but for the players and the staff and the fans as well,” Wright-Phillips said. “He lifts everybody and expects a lot more, so people have to play to their potential, which is fantastic for the team and the club.”
Despite dealing with the external pressure of winning in his debut, Drogba thought that the Rising responded with one of its best performances of the USL season.
Drogba added that his Phoenix debut didn’t feel any different than his first games for any of his prior teams, but acknowledged that the occasion would be remembered for his feat of becoming the first owner to appear on a score sheet.
“It always feels good to score a goal and it’s nice to make history, but that’s not the most important thing,” Drogba said. “It’s still the beautiful game and I want to enjoy it, and I was enjoying today, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
It’s been a long journey back to the field for Drogba, who hadn’t played in a competitive match since last September, when he came off the bench for the Montreal Impact before leaving the MLS club shortly thereafter.
“It was very difficult for me after six months without practicing,” said Drogba, who played the full 90 minutes on Saturday. “It took me five weeks to get back into kind of shape, so I think I still need a few weeks to improve, but it’s good to start at home and to start with the three points.”
Rising coach Patrice Carteron, who also made his debut for the club Saturday night, defended Drogba’s decision to take some extra time to work on his match fitness instead of rushing back onto the pitch.
“Everybody expects to see Didier Drogba,” Carteron said. “So if 7,000 people are coming to the stadium, he has to be ready. He wants to prove he can still play.”
Drogba eliminated any doubters Saturday night with a virtuoso performance that proved he can still roll back the years. He could have scored a hat trick, but was denied twice by the crossbar before heading home his first-half goal, which sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
As quickly as he’s become a favorite amongst the fans, Drogba has made an equally strong impression on his new teammates.
“I don’t need to tell you what kind of player he is,” said defender Peter Ramage, the club’s captain. “His energy levels, his commitment to the cause, he’s not just here for a holiday or anything like that. He’s here to work and here to win and that’s starting to rub off on the players even more so than we were before.”
“He’s one of the guys,” Ramage added. “He comes in and he’s still laughing and joking amongst the players and obviously there’s an aura about him because of who he is, but he doesn’t let that affect his relationship with the boys.”
While it may not affect Drogba’s relationship with them, some players are still getting used to having an international superstar on their team.
“Watching him growing up as a kid, it’s just mesmerizing having him on the same field as I am,” forward Jason Johnson said.
“When we do shooting practice, everyone’s just in awe looking at the way he finishes,” said defender Jordan Stewart, who played against Drogba’s Chelsea with Watford FC in 2006. “I don’t think much has changed.”
Now that Drogba has started producing results on the field, Phoenix Rising hopes he will deliver on the off-field portion of his promise, bringing the Valley an MLS team.
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