Phoenix Rising FC's Didier Drogba celebrates winning the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs with teammates and supporters. The trophy was the club's first in its history. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
What Carl Woszczynski remembers most is the sea of red in the stands.
“I think it was close to 1,000 fans [that ownership brought] in buses to kind of fill that stadium for us,” he said this week. “As soon as the game ended, our fans all rushed the field. That’s probably my most vivid memory.”
Five years ago, Phoenix Rising FC claimed its first silverware, lifting the Western Conference title in the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs with a 2-1 victory against Orange County SC at Championship Soccer Stadium.
It was the culmination of a two-year journey that began with an overhaul of the club’s brand, the construction of a soccer-specific stadium in record time, and the arrival of arguably the biggest name to ever grace the USL Championship in Didier Drogba.
For Woszczynski, though, it provided credence to the belief he had always maintained on the potential for professional soccer in Phoenix. The Indiana native had headed west to join the club then-known as Arizona United SC in 2015 with that in mind, and while the potential for progression faltered at times – especially during the club’s season at the Peoria Sports Complex in 2016 – the support the team received from its core fanbase provided room for optimism.
That all came to a head when the current ownership group led initially by Brett M. Johnson – now Chairman at Rhode Island FC – and subsequently joined by Berke Bakay, Tim Riester, Mark Detmer, Bill Kraus and many others acquired the team.
“Sticking with it, you know, obviously the new ownership group started to slowly come in,” said Woszczynski. “Brett Johnson, I think was the original and then he had numerous contacts to keep things going. So, what they were able to get into with the stadium in 2017, moving forward, was fantastic.”
Phoenix Rising FC's Carl Woszczynski celebrates with a fan after the side won the Western Conference Final in the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
Woszczynski was one of the holdovers through the transition as the club became Rising FC. So was forward Chris Cortez, who scored the opening goal after just 65 seconds when the side claimed victory in Orange County, at the time the fastest goal in USL Championship Playoffs history.
Having joined Phoenix in 2016, the standout striker was soon joined by a plethora of well-known names in the club’s forward line. Not only was there Drogba, whose arrival sparked previously unseen levels of excitement anywhere in the Championship, but there was the signing of former England international Shaun Wright-Phillips and former Mexico international Omar Bravo as well.
Add players with the experience of defender Peter Ramage and Jordan Stewart, and the culture of the club quickly began to change.
“It was a lot of a lot of little things and each guy was a little bit different,” said Cortez. “Didier has a certain personality, a certain presence. Peter Ramage – Rambo – has a different personality and a different presence, a different leadership. Jordan Stewart as well. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Omar Bravo also, all these guys really did it in different ways.
“For me personally, it was a great thing to not only make friendships with them, but understand what were all the little things that each of them did and how I can kind of take a little bit from each of them.”
It also brought a different feeling into the locker room and training, as well as the qualities each player brought on the field.
“I think that’s where we really saw an English locker room and the banter,” said Woszczynski. “One corner of the locker room was all those guys – Shaun, Jordan, Rambo, Didier, he was right there in that corner with them, Matt Watson was over there. I think that really elevated the professionalism but also the fun in the locker room where it’s not a bunch of American younger professionals anymore. You had a lot of veterans with a ton of experience.
“It obviously helped on the football side of things, but I just think the locker room environment and the camaraderie also shifted for the positive during this time.”
Phoenix Rising FC's supporters celebrate Chris Cortez's goal in the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
The changes in ownership and personnel were felt at all levels of the club, including the front office where the team went into overdrive marketing its new look, new venue and star arrivals. In 2017, the payoff was a first trip to the postseason in club history and penalty shootout elimination to eventual finalist Swope Park Rangers, which set the stage for what was next.
“It was an incredible first year and a crash course on running a professional soccer team, getting ourselves familiar with the league and having some big-time players,” said current Rising FC President Bobby Dulle. “Then I think that transition into year two, we had our feet under us a little bit. Right from that moment on the expectations were really high.”
Rising FC posted its best regular season with 19 victories and 63 points as newcomer Solomon Asante made an immediate impact with 14 goals and nine assists, while Cortez led the side with 17 regular season goals and Woszczynski had 12 shutouts. It was good for third place in the West, at which point Drogba went into overdrive.
The legend scored in each of the side’s first two postseason games as Phoenix swept into the Western Conference Final against Orange County SC. After Cortez’s opening goal, Drogba added a second with 17 minutes to go to bring a venue packed with traveling supporters to its feet. While OCSC pulled a goal back, when the final whistle went, Phoenix’s supporters flooded onto the field to celebrate with the players and staff.
“I joked with [Didier] to get him to give up the cup,” said Woszczynski. “I told him ‘you’ve done this plenty of times,’ to let us celebrate a little bit. But it was absolutely incredible. My mom was there, she flew out from Indianapolis, and my wife came out from the Phoenix area as well. But just looking over to my right, which at that point was where our fans were, and there were two or three older security guards standing in front of our fans. They didn’t stand a chance.”
Phoenix Rising FC's Chris Cortez celebrates with fans on the field at Championship Soccer Stadium after scoring in the side's victory against Orange County SC in the Western Conference Final in 2018. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
For Dulle, that night was the launching pad for where Rising FC is now as a team that is expected to compete for silverware every season. As the club returns to Championship Soccer Stadium this weekend for its first playoff meeting with Orange County since that game, the memory of the first silverware in club history remains a guide for the club’s present.
“It was just further motivation to try to bring more people together,” said Dulle. “Win or lose, people are willing to travel to support our organization, and we didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity. It was really gratifying and it was also motivation for us as an organization to keep pushing forward to keep trying to secure our future on the field, great partnerships in our market, and to continue to work hard.
“I think it was a huge motivator for us as an organization, not only in a feeling of winning a trophy but also the feeling of, ‘we’re building something special, and we want to continue to build this and attract more people to the organization.’”
That legacy is now the one the current group of Rising FC players is aiming to uphold, with the side’s thrilling 4-3 victory against San Diego Loyal SC after extra time last Sunday night that saw Danny Trejo, Dariusz Formella and Panos Armenakas all find the net offering it the opportunity it finds this weekend.
Danny Trejo has helped lead Phoenix Rising FC's resurgence this season as the side heads to face Orange County SC in the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Arianna Grainey / Phoenix Rising FC
At a club where winning is paramount, Cortez has been pleased with what he’s seen from the squad aiming to maintain Rising FC’s high standards on the field.
“Once you’ve done it once, that’s not enough,” said Cortez. “Having that expectation that unless you’re really winning the West or pushing for the Players’ Shield and then winning the Western Conference and the playoffs, winning the whole thing, unless you’ve done that, it wasn’t a good enough season. That was something that was very ingrained from pretty early on.
“I think there are always going to be times where it’s going to falter a little bit – there's ebbs and flows with every club in every league – but I think the standards and the expectations are always there for that and how can we do that best. I do definitely see a bit of that in the bits and pieces that I’ve seen this year. You can definitely see with the coaching, with a group of boys that they really are trying to push for that. Anything less than winning the entire league, I know they wouldn’t feel that it was good enough.”