Since his arrival in the USL Championship in April 2017, no player has generated as much buzz or expectation as Ivorian legend Didier Drogba. The Phoenix Rising FC forward, who called time on his playing career earlier this month, lived up to his own lofty standards and time and again delivered memorable moments both on and off the pitch.
In the past two years, Drogba scored 17 goals in 26 appearances for Rising FC, including three goals during the club’s run to the 2018 USL Cup as Phoenix claimed the Western Conference crown for the first time in its history.
To celebrate Drogba’s legendary career, here are 11 of the top moments from his time in the USL Championship.
After signing with Rising FC on April 12, Drogba arrived in the desert a few days later to a hero’s welcome. Hundreds of fans came out to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to catch the first glimpse of Drogba donning Phoenix’s red and black scarf and take some selfies with their new superstar.
Every year, the best young players in North America come together at the USL Experience to gain exposure in a professional environment. In 2018, the players in attendance received a surprise visit from the former Chelsea star, providing another historic moment in USL history. Drogba was on hand in Phoenix during the three-day event to lend some advice to the budding talents, shake some hands and take a few pictures.
Drogba made his long-awaited USL Championship debut against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 at Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex and didn’t wait long to make an impact. The Ivorian headed home Amadou Dia’s cross to open his USL account late in the first half and then provided an assist to former Chelsea teammate Shaun Wright-Phillips on the game-winning goal late in a 2-1 victory.
With his team trailing 1-0 in the 94th minute at Champions Soccer Stadium at OC Great Park, Drogba stepped over a free kick near the right side of the penalty area and curled a strike over the wall and into the right corner of the net to rescue a dramatic point for his side.
After Rising FC conceded twice in the opening 15 minutes of play in an October match against Tulsa Roughnecks FC, Drogba found the back of the net twice in the span of eight minutes to spark a dramatic comeback at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex. Drogba headed home an Amadou Dia cross at the back post to cut the side’s early deficit in half and then coolly converted from the penalty spot to give his side a 3-2 lead in the 24th minute of an action-packed first half. Jason Johnson’s goal in the 66th minute, which gave the winger a brace on the evening, sealed Rising FC’s 4-3 victory to give the side its fifth win in six games.
Drogba’s first brace for the club came in his second game as the forward helped his side pick up a vital point against the Swope Park Rangers at Children’s Mercy Victory Field. Drogba rolled a right-footed strike in off the post to level the game at 1-1 in the 57th minute before scoring from the penalty spot with a minute remaining in regulation to earn a 2-2 result against the reigning Western Conference Champion.
One of Drogba’s trademarks during his time in the USL Championship was his ability to score from long-distance free kicks. The Ivorian did just that against Tulsa Roughnecks FC early in the 2018 campaign, firing a set piece from nearly 40 yards out that goalkeeper Fabian Cerda could only get a touch to as the ball flew into the back of the net. The strike gave Phoenix a 3-1 lead in the 69th minute as the side cruised to a 5-1 victory at ONEOK Field.
Drogba’s propensity to cash in on long-range free kicks for Phoenix began back in 2017, as he delivered potentially his most stunning strike in a 2-0 away victory over the LA Galaxy II. The Ivorian stepped over a free kick nearly 40 yards out and produced a dipping and swerving effort that left Clement Diop with no chance of stopping it as knuckled its way into the top-right corner to open the scoring.
Drogba’s notoriety as a big game player was evident throughout his time in the USL Championship as he scored in four of his five appearances in the USL Cup Playoffs. The 40-year-old produced another thunderous free kick in Phoenix’s first ever home playoff match against the Portland Timbers 2 this October, overpowering goalkeeper Austin Pack with a stunning finish that opened the scoring as Rising FC claimed a 3-0 victory to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Phoenix’s captain continued to come up clutch throughout the side’s 2018 USL Cup Playoffs run and found the back of the net again as Rising FC claimed the Western Conference crown. Drogba’s strike at the second effort extended Phoenix’s lead over Orange County SC to 2-0 in the 73rd minute and proved to be the game winner as the club celebrated its first piece of silverware in its history with a 2-1 victory at Champions Soccer Stadium at OC Great Park.
Drogba cemented himself in USL lore forever with an unbelievable sequence of events that took place late in a home match against the LA Galaxy II. With Rising FC trailing 3-2 in the 71st minute, Drogba prepared to take a corner kick and while waiting for the referee, he started up a conversation with two kids sitting next to the pitch. Before you know it, Drogba takes a swig from the fan’s water bottle and moments later delivers and inch-perfect cross to Jason Johnson, who heads home to equalize. A wild celebration ensues near the corner flag, which features Rising FC owner Berke Bakay, players, and the young fans. For good measure, Drogba pours the rest of the water bottle on his head and goes on to score the game-winning goal from the penalty spot seven minutes later.