Photo courtesy Michael Rincon/Phoenix Rising FC
With a new name, a new stadium, and new players, 2017 was a year of rebirth for Phoenix Rising FC, as the club ascended much like the mythical bird the city procured its name from. Phoenix soared in 2017, managing the club's first appearances in the USL Cup Playoffs through a tremendous second half of the season during which it was one of the toughest teams to beat in the league.
Phoenix drew global headlines when Didier Drogba joined the club, managing an impressive cameo appearance after joining midway through the season. But while Drogba drew the headlines, alongside fellow former Chelsea standout Shaun Wright-Phillips, on the field it was Jamaican international Jason Johnson and goalkeeper Josh Cohen who made the headlines, impressing with stellar performances throughout the season to supplement the high-level performances of their more illustrious counterparts.
Record: 17-8-7, 58pts
Place: Fifth in the Western Conference
Goals For: 50
Goals Against: 37
USL Cup Playoffs: Western Conference Quarterfinals (L 1-1 AET, 4-2 on penalties vs. Swope Park Rangers)
2017 leaders: Jason Johnson (13 goals), Chris Cortez (5 assists), Josh Cohen (77 saves)
While the addition of Didier Drogba was big news, there is one other significant change to the team which defined the season, the choice to make Patrice Carteron the Head Coach. When a Head Coach leaves early in the season as Frank Yallop did just four games in, it can destabilize the side and make for a difficult season but that did not happen here. Rick Schantz kept things stable as the Interim Head Coach before Carteron took over. Under Carteron’s leadership the team's defensive organization rapidly improved, thanks to his experience as a defender in his playing days, without sacrificing the great scoring potential in the team. That resulted in a career-high 13 goals for Jason Johnson, with Drogba also chipping in 10 goals across the regular season and postseason despite a mid-season injury.
Despite a phenomenal home record that saw the club win 11 out of 16 times at the new Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, Phoenix's slow start to the season left it just short as early-season defeats to the likes of Toronto FC II left Rising FC just outside the the top four in the Western Conference by the season's end. A tough road contest instead awaited in the Western Conference Quarterfinal against defending Western Conference champion the Swope Park Rangers, and with the contest adversely affected by massive storms that saw it need a second day to be completed, Rising FC eventually succumbed in a penalty shootout to bring down the curtain on the season with some thought of what could have been.
Didier Drogba pulled one out from the memory banks against the LA Galaxy II in early July, firing into the top-right corner of the net from almost 40 yards to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory against Los Dos.
The slightest of deflections on Todd Wharton's shot for Rio Grande Valley FC only added to the difficulty for Rising FC goalkeeper Josh Cohen, who still managed to react perfectly to the curling effort to the left corner of his net in a 2-0 victory against the Toros late in the season.