Didier Drogba is used to wearing the royal blue and white uniform of Chelsea Football Club. He’s still remembered as a Blues legend, the team’s fourth all-time goal scorer with 164 goals in his nine seasons in London.
But on Sunday night, he stepped out onto the field at Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, where he was formally introduced as a Rising player to a sold-out crowd of 7,162, the third sellout and largest attendance in the club’s history.
“We’re going to win a lot of games here,” Drogba said.
Phoenix Rising FC snapped Swope Park’s three-game perfect start on the season, holding off a last-minute Rangers scoring barrage to win 4-3.
Maybe Drogba’s presence gave Phoenix (2-2) an extra boost.
The last and only time Phoenix went toe-to-toe with Swope Park (3-1) dates back to last July, a match that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Building off its 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy II two weeks ago, Phoenix Rising FC made this matchup a different story, although it was close.
“I think the fragileness of the team showed a little bit tonight,” Rising coach Frank Yallop said. “We had not really been through that, where we’re up and kind of cruising. I will credit all our guys, they tried their best. In the end we won the game. Doesn’t matter how you win it, we got three points tonight.”
Swope Park was one of three undefeated teams in the USL. It also had yet to give up a goal since its season opener, a combined 246 minutes before Phoenix midfielder Alessandro Riggi found twine at the 21-minute mark in the first half.
Shortly after that, Swope Park goaltender David Greczek collided with forward Chris Cortez at the edge of the box, drawing the yellow flag and setting up midfielder Luke Rooney for the penalty kick. He nailed it, propelling the score to 2-0.
Cortez added to the scoring before the half with a curler in the low left corner in the 27th minute.
The Rangers triggered a few chances of their own, winning the possession battle 61 percent to 38 percent in the first half. But Phoenix netminder Josh Cohen shut the door on their attackers.
Phoenix’s attacking firepower spilled into the second half. Barley a minute in, Rooney found Peter Rammage for a 4-0 lead.
“The difference today was fitness, sharpness, togetherness, all the things the good teams have,” Yallop said. “We weren’t there in the first two games. The season kind of started too early to be honest.”
As the half progressed, the offense quieted.
The shift began 52 minutes in, when Swope Park forward Cameron Iwasa sent Cohen sprawling on the grass. Cohen was able to return to the net, finishing the night with five saves, including a block that careened off his forehead.
Swope Park eventually got one past him, though. Midfielder Kévin Olivera converted a penalty shot after Phoenix defenseman Kody Wakasa drew a red card.
“I thought towards the second half we sort of lifted off the gas a little bit,” Rooney said. “Maybe a little bit of inexperience where everybody is chasing more goals rather than just kicking the ball.”
Olivera tallied another after, rocketing a shot to the top right corner. The extra five minutes gave the Rangers another chance. Midfielder Christian Duke followed up with a goal to make it 4-3.
In the end, the Rangers outshot Phoenix 19-14.
“I think the red card (on Wakasa) was everything,” Yallop said. “We crumbled when that happened and we got to give credit to the opposition. They scored three very good goals. We could’ve scored more.”
Next up, Phoenix faces Reno 1868 in what could be Drogba’s debut.
“I’m sure he’ll be a great signing for us, especially for the few young players we have,” Rooney said. “When they turn ’round in the dressing room, they’ll see Didier Drogba, one of the best guys to play in the Premier League.”