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Phoenix Rising high in push for MLS place

Under the baking Arizona sun, the players of United Soccer League (USL) side Phoenix Rising sweat through training, pushing their limits to see how far they can go in this year's USL play-offs, starting this weekend against Swope Park Rangers.

Despite their best efforts in the league, the nature of the closed division means the players know they cannot win promotion to Major League Soccer (MLS), no matter how they fare in Kansas on Saturday.

But in the air-conditioned boardroom of the club's training complex there is more hard -- albeit less sweaty -- work being done to try and turn their top-flight dreams into a reality.

The Phoenix outfit, a little more than a year old, is one of 12 teams vying for a place in the next MLS expansion, with the first two of those likely to be named in mid-December for entrance in 2020, and the next two some time in 2018 (to enter the league in 2021).

Under the leadership of Club Governor Berke Bakay, and with a diverse ownership group that includes former Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba, acclaimed American DJ, record producer, rapper and singer Diplo, and Pete Wentz from rock band Fall Out Boy, there is real optimism that in the coming years the club will be competing in the top league.

"I think it is just a matter of when and not if. I can't imagine Major League Soccer without having one of the largest cities in the United States being part of that," Bakay tells KweséESPN in Phoenix.

"I don't want to sound arrogant; I'm very humbled by the whole experience and I cannot talk to the timing of it, but it will happen."

Bakay has been leading the charge to MLS since his ownership group acquired the Arizona United club, re-branded it Phoenix Rising in 2016, and found a new home in Tempe within the metropolitan boundaries of the city.

A 'pop-up' stadium was quickly erected and the club has been an instant hit with locals, averaging over 99 percent capacity at its 6 200-seater temporary home in 2017.

Bakay says they are only starting to scratch the surface of the team's potential though, and admits that personalities and razzmatazz aside, there have to be compelling reasons why MLS will invite Phoenix Rising to join the league. He believes the club has them.

"A year ago none of this was here, including our stadium which was built from the ground-up in 52 days," Bakay says. "I don't know where else you could achieve that when you think about the permitting and everything else that goes into it, so it shows we have great support.

"We will build a permanent stadium on this site, subject to our MLS bid, and once we get the confirmation that we are in the league, we will start building it. I am not sure of the capacity yet -- we are still professionally assessing the requirements -- but I would think it would be around 23 000."

Bakay says the stadium is a crucial part of their future, but they have a number of other factors in their favour.

"If you look at what gets you there [into MLS], it is really about having the right market. You need the right ingredients," he says. "Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the United States and out of the 12 bidding cities it has one of the largest, if not the largest, media market, which is very important for what it can do for the other teams because obviously it brings the value of the media contract up.

"Our attendance figures are close to 400 percent higher from a year ago, we have brought in world stars such as Didier Drogba and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and it is a treat for our fans to be able to really enjoy them.

"A soccer-specific stadium is a must for MLS. We have the best location available in the Phoenix market that is shovel-ready to go. I feel like we have all the right ingredients and we are working towards making that dream a reality."

One of the biggest negatives against Phoenix's bid is the heat of the Sonoran Desert, but the club maintain this is essentially a non-issue.

That's because it is a 'dry heat', and has none of the stifling humidity of Houston or Orlando, and that shaded areas in a stadium, or at night matches, would actually provide a much more comfortable fan experience than at many current MLS venues.

Bakay says bringing MLS to Phoenix is about what the club can do for the local community and enhance the brand of the city.

"I grew up in Istanbul and have always been a fan of Galatasaray. I have a great admiration for the sport. For me it is a perfect combination, now that I live in Phoenix, to be able to do something great for the community and bring professional soccer to the city," he says.

"It is one of the fastest growing sports in this country, so to be able to bring that in a professional level in Phoenix really excites me."

The capture of Drogba, a former Galatasaray player, as both a co-owner and player for the club has been a major coup.

"It's amazing to call someone your partner who has been on the cover of Time magazine and been named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world," Bakay says. "As recently as three months ago ESPN picked him as among the top 100 most famous athletes in the world and he is the only one from Arizona.

"Think about that: you've got [American] Football, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, you've got a lot of professional athletes in Arizona, but he's the only one to make ESPN's list." 

Drogba says he saw the potential of the project immediately and, with his playing days winding down, jumped at the chance to look at a new career path in football.

"It's an amazing project here, to build a team from scratch and apply for an MLS license. I am learning a lot about the other aspects of the game, which is important," Drogba tells KweséESPN.

"I played before in this league [MLS] with Montreal [Impact] and I had time to understand the league and the challenges, and to see how this opportunity could become a big one. That's why I came here, to try to make history."

Drogba has brought with him French coach Patrice Carteron, whose Midas touch led the side to the USL playoffs this season after a difficult start.

"It's a fantastic project. The energy is fantastic, the board members are very ambitious and very optimistic. I work in very good conditions," Carteron says. "Here we are building everything to prepare the club to go to MLS as soon as possible."

He says all the work that the coaching staff put in now is not only for this year, but with one eye on a future in MLS, as he looks to develop the squad without the win-at-all-costs mentality.

Carteron adds: "In Europe, every game is very important and you have to win in because everything is about the result. We are thinking differently now because we are starting to think about the future; we are thinking about many seasons from now.

"The philosophy is totally different, we are in a closed division, and it is not as if we had to reach one of the top two places to get into MLS."

Aside from Phoenix, the other cities in contention for the four MLS places are Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, Sacremento, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

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