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English contingent leads Phoenix Rising FC

English players Matt Watson (left), Jordan Stewart (center) and Peter Ramage (right) listen to coach Rick Schantz (far right) at Phoenix Rising FC practice at the team’s training complex in Scottsdale, AZ. (Photo by John Arlia/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In the United States, a popular formula for building a successful soccer franchise hinges on a team’s ability to sign and develop young, local talent.

Phoenix Rising FC continues to show that it isn’t like most soccer clubs.

Since Turkish majority owner Berke Bakay rebranded the team from Arizona United Soccer Club this past fall, the Rising have brought an international flavor to the Valley.

That mindset quickly transitioned from the boardroom to the team’s 26-man roster, which features 12 international players, half of whom hail from England.

“It’s like Christopher Columbus brought us over on the boat, didn’t he? Just to try to make a revolution,” joked English defender Peter Ramage, who serves as the club’s captain.

Interim manager Rick Schantz offered a more logical explanation for why the Rising’s English contingent embarked on its voyage to the Grand Canyon State.

“It started with (former) coach Frank Yallop,” said Schantz, who took over the team after Yallop resigned in late April. “These guys that have come over had experience in the Premier League and probably had a lot of other options, but they trusted Frank.”

Yallop, who was born in Watford, England, played 13 seasons in English football at Ipswich Town before coming to North America to finish out his playing career and make the transition to management. Before taking over the Rising, he coached Canada’s national team and a handful of other clubs in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Although Yallop has come and gone, the Rising’s English core has remained.

In some matches this season, the team has featured five English players (Peter Ramage, Luke Rooney, Jordan Stewart, Matt Watson and Shaun Wright-Phillips) in their starting 11.

By comparison, the LA Galaxy II, who suffered a 2-1 defeat this Saturday at the hands of the Rising (4-4-0), have fielded 34 players this season with only five coming from overseas.

Schantz said that he relies on his English core for their experience, having played at some of the highest levels of soccer around the world, and the passion that they bring to the pitch every day.

“The thing that I know about all English players is they’re very hardworking and they fight ‘til the end,” Schantz said. “It’s really nice to have a group of leaders that are English.”

That fight-to-the-end attitude was on full display when the Rising hosted the Oklahoma City Energy two weeks ago. Wright-Phillips tallied the game-winning goal in the 95th minute of the team’s 2-1 win.

While the group has been improving its chemistry on the field, it is even closer off it.

“Obviously, we do stick together,” Ramage said. “But there’s no cliques nor anything in this group. Everybody’s mates with everybody else. We all socialize off the field as well as work together on it. It’s a great bunch of players to be involved with both on and off the pitch.”

“There’s something about people from your country,” said midfielder Matt Watson, who started his youth career in the Wolverhampton Wanderers Academy. “You just kind of have the extra little bond with them, with things you grew up with and things like that.”

For Ramage and Wright-Phillips, a bond can be shared over even the smallest English delicacy: digestive biscuits.

Ramage said the two have been receiving care packages from family back home and are trying to stockpile their favorite English treats.

“You can get the American style, but to us, they’re English,” he said. “It’s just kind of keeping a little bit of England over here, which is nice for us.”

Before joining the Rising last season, Ramage said he had offers to continue his career in England but was sold on the club’s rebranding plans and decided to try something new.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “The weather’s unbelievable out here, too, it’s a great way of life.”

“I’m from the north of England,” Ramage said. “It was snowing the other day, so I was delighted to be able to FaceTime my wife and kids when they were sitting inside and I’m sitting by the pool.”

Watson, who left England when he was 19 to pursue a soccer scholarship at University of Maryland Baltimore College, said his adjustment to Phoenix wasn’t so drastic because he has his family with him and he’s played his entire professional career in North America.

After growing up in England and playing in MLS with Chicago and Vancouver, Watson said that it is a little bit of an adjustment to play in front of the team’s still-growing fan base, but feels that the environment is well-suited for his biggest fans.

“I would say that the atmosphere is a little more family-friendly,” Watson said. “I don’t think I’m so worried when my family are in this crowd as opposed to when I am in England where the crowd can be a little more boisterous.”

“But behind the goal you get that support section where it is more like England where the fans are completely standing up, singing, chanting, yelling at the away team and stuff like that.”

Although “Los Bandidos” and other support groups occasionally remind him of home, Watson said he’s constantly reminded of English football by Wright-Phillips and new teammate Didier Drogba. Watson says that the two former Chelsea stars have recently been gloating about Chelsea’s recent English Premier League title victory.

While teammates may be divided by their club loyalties, Schantz feels that their shared passion for the sport has unified them on and off the pitch. He believes that the Rising’s decision to sign foreign players to spearhead their push for an MLS expansion franchise has been well worth the investment.

“Our ownership has been willing to spend the money to get these type of players,” Schantz said. “We may be more international than most, but I’d also say that we’re pretty exciting.”

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