Phoenix Rising FC's Darnell King celebrates with the 2020 USL Championship Western Conference Title trophy last year. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC
This Saturday night’s clash between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Phoenix Rising FC is set to be special for a number of reasons led by the fact that the reigning Eastern Conference and Western Conference Title holders will be squaring off on ESPN2 in potentially one of the biggest games in the USL Championship’s history.
For Darnell King, though, there’s added meaning. A Tampa, Fla. native that came through the local soccer scene and eventually played professionally for the Rowdies, King is set to return to his hometown with Rising FC looking to help the visitors take victory with family members on hand that haven’t seen him play live in more than a year.
Ahead of Saturday’s matchup, we caught up with King for an in-depth discussion on developing with other current professionals in Tampa Bay as a youngster, the places he’s enjoying in Phoenix, and the new canine addition to the family that arrived last year.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Phoenix Rising FC's Darnell King appeared in every game of the 2020 USL Championship season and finished second on Rising FC with 1,697 minutes of action in his first year at the club. | Photo courtesy Arianna Grainey / Phoenix Rising FC
Nicholas Murray: There’s a lot of build-up around Saturday’s game, with the national television cameras, the storylines from last season and the potential this could be one of the biggest games in the Championship’s history. Is that in the back of your mind as a player getting ready for 90 minutes this week?
Darnell King: Yeah, I mean as a player, every game is a big game. You want to play every game like it’s your last because tomorrow is not guaranteed, but this game does have a little extra to it because, obviously, it was the championship game that didn’t get to get played and we felt there was a missing piece because of that last year. I think this is a highly anticipated game for a lot of fans, and on top of that a lot of players that were here and went through that hard year last year to end up in the championship, and to not be able to play that game because of COVID hurts, you know? I’m still very motivated, just like we were last year, the guys that are still here, we’re ready to show these guys what we’re made of.
NM: You grew up in Tampa, your family is still here and you played three seasons for the Rowdies as well, what is this weekend going to mean to you personally?
DK: It’s a big weekend. Like I said, kind of building off when we were supposed to have that championship, there was a lot of anticipation from my family, they really wanted to watch me play because it was really a whole year of not being able to watch me play because they’re on the East coast and I’m on the West coast. They were very excited for it, and that made me very excited and motivated to play the game.
I’m still very motivated, just like we were last year, the guys that are still here, we’re ready to show these guys what we’re made of.
Obviously, I played in Tampa for three years, and no chip on my shoulder after we parted ways, no matter how it happened, but I’d ready to show them that we’re coming and we’re a force to be
reckoned with, so it’s exciting, but really the word for me is I’m very motivated for this game and ready to bring it to these guys.
NM: There are obviously still protocols in place that mean there are limits on what players and staff can do, where they can go while the COVID-19 virus is still present, how difficult does that make road trips in comparison to the way it was previously?
DK: I think it’s a bit tougher, but going through it last year when it was at its highest, you kind of got a glimpse of how it was going to be. I think travel is always rough, and we want to get there and make sure that we’re settled and acclimated to the time as well. It’s different, everyone’s still scared of COVID at times and you don’t want to go on a trip and get anything on your way. We’re very cautious, we do our due diligence in keeping ourselves safe and all that, so it’s obviously different to how it used to be, but it is what it is, you have to roll with the punches.
NM: What have been your favorite things to do, to pass the time and maybe expand your own horizons during the past year?
DK: I actually picked up my guitar again a little more heavily during that crazy time, and also I got a dog, so it was pretty good to have a companion. My wife and I, we got our dog and he took our mind off all the craziness that was going on. Then, spending time with your family because you have that time to spend with them because you’re around them a lot more. Trying to stay healthy and focused, because there was still a possibility to play games, which ended up happening, so I was staying fit and staying focused so I wouldn’t be at ground zero getting fit for a season that could come back up again. Keeping my mind at ease, rolling with the punches and waiting for what the next step would be.
NM: What is the dog’s name?
DK: His name is Havoc. Havoc Henry King.
NM: What breed is he?
DK: He’s an Australian cattle dog, cute puppy.
NM: How big is he now?
DK: About 75 pounds. He’s gotten pretty big since I got him. It’s fun, he’s energetic, he keeps me lively, we love him.
NM: I mentioned before, you grew up in Tampa, and you grew up at a time where there was a lot of soccer talent in the club and high school scene here. How did that help shape you into the player you’ve become?
DK: It actually helped a lot. For me, I always played up, I never really played in my age-group, and that helped me transition into my high school – my high school coach was my club coach as well, but he worked for the older group and that group was actually two years older than me, so after high school training I’d go and train with them, and there were some big players there. It just helped me, because it prepared me for the next step, even though I wasn’t at that level yet, so by the time I got there I was ready physically and mentally as well, you know, I was kind of a humble kid at the time.
My high school coach was my club coach as well, but he worked for the older group and that group was actually two years older than me, so after high school training I’d go and train with them, and there were some big players there.
It put me in a good place and it shaped me, so I’m thankful for all the players I played with, they kept me in a good place and always kept me motivated. It was good for me to understand my place and my role and try to learn a lot from the players that I played with and the coaches that I had. I was pretty blessed in that aspect to be in such a really good soccer world, from Black Watch Soccer Club to Hillsborough United to Player’s Club, and obviously my high school career which transitioned me over to college.
NM: Your high school coach at Gaither High was Eric Sims, right?
NM: Would you say he was the biggest influence on your direction, especially during those four years of high school moving toward the college game?
DK: I had a lot of big influences. I can definitely say [Sims] was a big influence as well, but it took a lot before I got there to kind of grasp everything that was coming that I didn’t really know about yet. It was the people at Black Watch Soccer Club from Bill Burton to Rocco Pecora to my dad, Tim King, they really pushed the young players to strive. We were in the big tournaments, we were in Dallas Cup, and we played in these tournaments where you experience a different type of soccer. It really helped me understand the game from another level rather than just be a competitive youth soccer player coming up in America.
Then when I got to Hillsborough United with Eric Sims and the coaches I had around that time, it really helped me because they were teaching me that next step that I didn’t get when I was with those other coaches. We were youth at the time, so at that point that transition was different, and it was good to transition from that to the coaches I had at Hillsborough United. They really pushed me, every coach I’ve had has pushed me to a point where they’ve made me love the game but also kept me humble knowing I can do this, it’s not just a pipe dream.
After competing in the region's soccer scene as a youth player, Darnell King played for three seasons at hometown club the Tampa Bay Rowdies between 2015-17. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
NM: There are still quite a few of those players and those that came a little after you did in the pro ranks now, like Jeff Attinella in Portland, Wes Charpie at Louisville and Ben Sweat at Austin FC. Do you think that reflects what Tampa Bay’s soccer scene was like back then?
DK: I definitely think so, in the area, yeah. I think that’s like a lot of places, you know, players get missed, and it could have been any of us as well. There’s a lot of talent in Florida, I must say that, from Tampa all the way down to Miami. I’ve played with many good players, as you know I lived in Miami and South Florida for a lot of years, and a lot of players go under the radar, and that happens in this industry.
I know that a lot of players I played with in Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, I’ve seen a lot of different styles, and Florida’s obviously kind of a melting pot of so many different cultures and people, and that meant lots of different styles of soccer. Playing with these players, it showed there is a lot of talent in Tampa, and I know that the teams I played against, Strictly Soccer, Black Watch, there’s a lot of good players. Some keep it going and you never know how things change, you transition into something different, but I was very honored and blessed to play with many great players. My teammates helped shape me into who I am today, and I love all of them for it.
NM: Back then, though, there wasn’t that much in the way of professional soccer in Florida. Now you’ve got Orlando, you’ve got Tampa Bay, you’ve got Inter Miami, you’ve got Miami FC and all the academy systems they’re building out to try and cast a wider net and make sure a lot of that talent doesn’t go overlooked as it might have done in the past. How big would that have been for a player like yourself to come in and compete and train alongside professionals when you were 16, 17, 18 years old as kids at Tampa Bay United, kids at Chargers SC around here are now getting to?
DK: I think it’s really good news. It’s great to see now because I’ve seen a lot of kids in the area get that opportunity, and not all of them are going to make it, but you will find a handful to a good amount of kids that are here and love the sport in Florida. Back then, we had to deal with what we dealt with, we had good competitive leagues and a lot of players were seen and went to certain places, some players went to IMG and we played against them a handful of times, so that was kind of where it started and then it started to pick up as I started transitioning into college.
But, I think it’s great, you’re starting to see kids who can compete with professionals at a high level. They just need to get put in that environment and see how they cope with it, and to have the opportunity to be in the Academy and move up to the First Team when you’re playing well is great. It’s only going to promote greatness in the soccer culture here in America.
You’re starting to build a tradition. These kids are coming up through the Academies and looking at the guys on the First Team and saying, “I want to play for them.” It’s USL now, but you never know where it can be in the future.
NM: You’ve got some youngsters like Niall Dunn at Phoenix, who’s now on a USL Academy contract after coming through the club’s system, is that encouraging to see how many Championship clubs now – and especially independent clubs – have USL Academy signings, have the 17- and 18-year-olds in that system in places like Tulsa, places like New Mexico, places like San Diego where it’s starting to proliferate in terms of how much access there is now to the professional game?
DK: You’re starting to build a tradition. These kids are coming up through the Academies and looking at the guys on the First Team and saying, “I want to play for them.” It’s USL now, but you never know where it can be in the future, you never know where these Academies can take you, they can take you overseas or maybe where you want to go, but that’s how you get put on a platform and not miss. You’re in a position where you’re around coaches and put in certain tournaments and games where you are being seen more often, and then it’s about how you showcase yourself.
It’s good that it’s being accepted for kids to work hard and stay focused and be hungry to make the next level, and that’s what Niall’s done. He’s a very personable kid, a very humble kid, he’s great, he comes in, does his work, keeps his head down and we love him for that. He’s done a great job so far and I keep hoping for the best for him. He’s going to be a great player, and I think people are going to need to watch out for him. For the other clubs, I think it’s great. It’s giving kids something to strive for. … There are more opportunities for these kids to pave their way, and I think you’re going to see a lot more talent come through the ranks this way.
NM: You’ve been a few places now since moving on from the Rowdies at the end of the 2017 season, going from San Antonio to Nashville and now to Phoenix. What’s been the most enjoyable part getting to know those cities as part of your career?
DK: Just the challenge of going to prove yourself is a joy for me, just because I know I had to prove myself to the other players in the locker room on the field, I love playing. Like I said earlier, tomorrow is never guaranteed, so I always want to play every game like it’s my last. Whatever team I’m on, that’s what I’m trying to do, it’s nice to go to different teams, experience different cultures, see how different people and organizations are, but it’s also nice to have a home, a place where you can settle for a while.
Being able to go to different places with my wife and explore different cities, it’s nice, we’ve loved it, and we’re just glad to be in a place where it’s so welcoming, we love the city, the culture here, and we love winning, and that’s what this team is about. We’re a winning culture and that’s what we plan to keep doing.
My wife loved Nashville, but we headed to a different city and she loves Phoenix, so happy wife, happy life, you know. Living on the East coast for a while and moving to the West coast, it’s different of course, but we like it, you get to explore. Football is capable of taking you many different places, and we’ve been lucky enough to explore these different spaces.
NM: Do you have any favorite spots to hang out at or visit in Phoenix and the surrounding area right now?
DK: We actually like to go a restaurant called Crust. The owner there is really cool, his name’s Mike, and there’s actually a little speakeasy under the restaurant called The Ostrich, so that’s a nice little hangout spot for us. Then, wherever we can find some water, because we’re from Florida so any chance to get out on the lake or the river or something, we try and do that. We also just got a house, so we’re enjoying our home and being comfortable here.
Living on the East coast for a while and moving to the West coast, it’s different of course, but we like it, you get to explore. Football is capable of taking you many different places, and we’ve been lucky enough to explore these different spaces.
NM: Your squad looks different, especially in the back line, since the end of last season. How has it been as the lone holdover from the 2020 Western Conference Final to now lining up with James Musa and Tobi Adewole in the middle to start the season?
Returning to Phoenix Rising FC's back line in the 2021 USL Championship season, Darnell King has helped the side get out to an impressive start before its showdown with the Tampa Bay Rowdies on ESPN2. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orrellana / Phoenix Rising FC
DK: I think it’s great. The good thing is we have players that can adapt to any role they need to step into. Whenever a player is next to me, we’re going to create a relationship and work together to win games and try to get shutouts as often as we can. I know these players – I knew James before and I played against Tobi a few times, so I know the qualities and the attitude they bring. We have a good environment, we’re a family on that back line and we try to hold it down for our city, for our organizations, for our club. It’s all about building that trust and that relationship, and I think the guys that are there on the field and off the field, we want to do well with that, so anyone who steps on the field, I know I can trust them.
NM: You also picked up a midfielder I think most people in Championship circles admire a lot in Aodhan Quinn, what has it been like to see the way he works day-in and day-out as well as what he brings to the field when it comes to game time?
DK: Aodhan, obviously he’s a top midfielder. When you were playing against him, you always had to be aware of where he was at all times, so getting him was a huge asset to our team. He fits right in with us, so like I said, the players that adapt do very well in this league, so having him and having players around him that know his style and what he does is great. He has a great range of passing, he has great vision, and he’s a leader as well. It’s great to have a player on the team like that to keep pushing us to get more championships and win more games. Like you said, a lot of people would like to have him on their team, so we’re very blessed to have him.
NM: Where do you think the most important area on the field is going to be in Saturday’s game?
DK: Good question. I think everyone’s going to just have to win their individual battles. The middle of the field, whoever can dominate that area will definitely be most likely on top, but it’s going to be a battle. Every game’s a battle, but this one means a lot more. Everyone on the field is going to know what’s at stake and I think all over the field is going to be important. It’s all about focus and concentration, and I know that we’re preparing mentally and physically for the Rowdies.
NM: How confident is the team feeling about its chances at Al Lang Stadium?
DK: We’re confident. We are. We’re coming there to win a game, just like any other game. I think people know our mentality, I think people know what we’re about, we’re not coming with arrogance, we’re coming with confidence, so we’re just ready to play and let our actions do the talking and move on from there.
[Aodhan Quinn] has a great range of passing, he has great vision, and he’s a leader as well. It’s great to have a player on the team like that to keep pushing us to get more championships and win more games. ... We're very blessed to have him.
NM: Right now on fivethirtyeight.com, it rates Phoenix Rising as 31 percent chance to make the Championship Final, Tampa Bay as a 25 percent chance to make the Final. What percent chance do you give that is we see this matchup again in the USL Championship Final at the end of this season?
DK: It’s good, whatever the people think. I kind of let the numbers follow their way, we’re just going to keep focusing on one game at a time and make sure we’re there. That’s our goal. Whatever they do on the East side, that’s up to them. I can’t speak for Tampa, but in the high numbers for us, because we have a mentality of win, and that’s what we plan to do.