It wasn’t in front of tens of thousands at London’s famed Stamford Bridge, nor the masses inside World Cup venues of years past. But Didier Drogba’s presence on the pitch before a sellout crowd of 7,062 in 100-degree heat at an American second-division facility Saturday night still created a buzz.
Drogba, wearing No. 11 in red and the captain’s armband, made his playing debut for USL side Phoenix Rising FC about two months after agreeing to join the club as player and part owner. He looked sharp from the start and rewarded the crowd and those watching around the world online with the game’s opening goal in the 40th minute.
Drogba headed a cross from teammate Amadou Dia into the net, the ball deflecting off the hands of Vancouver Whitecaps 2 goalkeeper Sean Melvin. The 39-year-old celebrated his first goal of the season by sprinting to a corner flag and basking in the embraces of his teammates.
He later assisted on what proved to be the winner, stealing the ball at midfield and passing to former Chelsea teammate Shaun Wright-Phillips for Rising’s second goal in the 77th minute. Phoenix defeated the Canadian club 2-1 in a regular season league match.
“Nothing different,” he said when asked about his debut compared to others. “The game is still the beautiful game and I want to enjoy it, and I was enjoying today, and that’s the most important thing for me.”
Phoenix has a team in every major American sports league except Major League Soccer, and every previous attempt at establishing and maintaining a professional club in the area has failed.
There is a different feeling with Phoenix Rising, and having a legend like Drogba intensifies the positive vibes among fans. The Ivory Coast native was first introduced to Phoenix soccer fans at halftime of a game on April 23, promising to help in the team’s quest to become an MLS franchise.
That night, it was announced that Drogba needed several weeks to get himself into playing shape, and five missed games later, Drogba was ready. He played the full 90 minutes of the match.
“It took me five weeks to kind of get back in shape. I still need a few weeks to improve, but it’s good to start at home,” Drogba said.
On Saturday, Drogba took the field to lead warm-ups with a throng of photographers recording his every move and fans in the single-tier seating bowl shouting his name. The club issued an estimated 30 press credentials, three times the amount for a typical match since the season opener.
As he took the pitch for the start of the game, Drogba raised both arms in salute of the Rising supporters groups, La Furia Roja and Los Bandidos.
The lone striker at the top of Rising’s formation, Drogba made an almost immediate impact with his first touch. Three minutes in, Drogba slotted a pinpoint touch pass into the box to Wright-Phillips, but the midfielder’s shot attempt was saved.
“Not only for me but for the players and the staff and the fans as well, I think it’s very important to bring something different to the game,” Wright-Phillips said of Drogba. “He also lifts up everybody and expects everyone to play to their potential, which is fantastic for the team and the club.”
Sellers had asked as much as $100 per ticket to the recently constructed Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, which sits on Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribal land next to two major freeways, to watch Drogba’s debut. His first free kick curved toward the goal in the 25th minute but was headed away, one of several scoring chances for Drogba on the night.
His 29th-minute shot curled toward the right goalpost but was saved by Melvin, and Drogba jogged away with his arms outstretched in disbelief. A 36th-minute header glanced off the top of the goal. He grabbed his head with his hands as the crowd groaned.
Despite his advanced soccer age, Drogba, without wasting his movements, was undoubtedly the best player on the field, his imposing size and skill when the ball came to him still a major advantage over opponents.
In the 64th minute, his chance for a second goal was lost when he fluttered a shot wide of the goal after a good feed from teammate Omar Bravo. Head coach Patrice Carteron, also making his debut at the helm for Phoenix, was satisfied with Drogba’s play.
“Most of the fans came to see him and he showed that he is still a great player,” Carteron said. “I’m really happy for all of you who had the pleasure to see such a player.”
Drogba, who after leaving English Premier League super club Chelsea for the first time in 2012 played in Turkey and China, joined the Montreal Impact of MLS following one last season in London. He had offers to continue playing or coaching at the start of this season, but after meeting Rising governor Berke Bakay and coming to Arizona for a tour and meeting, joined the club in a unique capacity.
Phoenix is one of a dozen candidates for MLS expansion, and is widely considered one of the North American first division league’s most attractive options because of overall market size, large Latino population and a strategic site and plan for a privately financed, climate-controlled soccer specific stadium.
Adding an internationally-recognizable name like Drogba to the club’s ownership group is seen as even further enhancing of Rising’s MLS campaign.