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Signing Drogba delivers exposure to Phoenix Rising's MLS expansion bid

Didier Drogba
After two years in Montreal, Didier Drogba has moved to Phoenix Rising FC in their push for an MLS expansion place.

After Didier Drogba's contract with the Montreal Impact ran out at the end of last season, he had no shortage of offers to continue his career as well as expand his business interests. Phoenix Rising FC lead owner Berke Bakay had an advantage over everyone else: the proverbial man on the inside.

Last week, the United Soccer League club announced that Drogba had signed as a player for two years, and would join the team's ownership ranks as it aims to secure one of four MLS expansion slots that will be filled in the next 20 months or so.

The announcement had been rumored for weeks, but it's still a stunner. Drogba is opting to play in a league that occupies the second tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid. USL president Jake Edwards was understandably giddy when discussing Drogba's signing.

"For us, it's a validation of where we've come from as a league and where we're going that a player of that quality, with that experience is looking at the USL as a real opportunity," he told ESPN FC in a telephone interview.

But make no mistake, this move is one that was made with MLS in mind, and that Drogba made such a decision is largely down to the vision of Bakay. A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Bakay grew up a devout fan of Turkish giants Galatasaray, and his uncle, Hamdi Yasaman is a former board member and executive with the club.

In 2013, when Drogba cut short his adventure with Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua, he landed at Galatasaray. Helping to secure that move was a mutual friend of Bakay's and Drogba's, Omer Sulyak. So when Bakay reached out to Sulyak about gauging Drogba's interest in becoming a player and part owner of the club, he knew he had a direct line to the Ivorian.

"Omer's friendship with Didier was the catalyst," Bakay told ESPN FC by telephone. "Drogba had so many other offers. To get him here, that was Omer, big time for sure."

Without question, there have been other critical steps along the way. Bakay -- and an investor group that includes Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz and Grammy award-winning DJ, rapper and record producer Diplo -- bought the club in August with an eye on one day moving to MLS. He not only rebranded the team -- the club was previously known as Arizona United -- but also managed to secure land for a stadium in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Tempe. He soon built a 6,200-seat stadium that is only a temporary venue until an MLS-size stadium can be built. The fact that the site is on reservation land means the ownership group will not have to pay property taxes.

The demographics of the Phoenix area, with its heavy Hispanic population, as well as being the largest media market among the 12 expansion candidates, are huge selling points in Bakay's mind. There also isn't another MLS team within 300 miles, something that few expansion candidates can say.

Phoenix Rising FC
With an enormous media market and Didier Drogba set to join the ownership group, Phoenix Rising could appeal to MLS in expansion.

The team also brought in the likes of former Mexico international Omar Bravo as well as former Manchester City, Chelsea and New York Red Bulls winger Shaun Wright-Phillips. Already this season, without Drogba, the club's attendance has quadrupled from 1,400 fans per game to more than 6,500. The sample size is small -- just two games -- but it speaks to the fact that Bakay and the ownership group have done a lot right.

Yet all along, Bakay knew he needed something to make other MLS owners take notice. The Phoenix market hasn't fully embraced the sport in the past, and the 11 other expansion candidates all have stories to tell. So starting in September, Bakay started the process of bringing Drogba on board. Once he made contact through Sulyak, the process continued.

"Getting Didier wasn't an afterthought, nor did we have a shortlist of three other players that we were trying to get," said Bakay. "We absolutely found Drogba. We went through the right channels to convince him to come here and see what we're doing."

The tipping point came in late January, when the team flew Drogba out for three days of meetings and a tour of the club's facilities. Drogba's time in Montreal gave him a level of familiarity with the league, and what it would take for Phoenix to reach that level. Bakay offered Drogba the chance to finish his playing career, at which point he would become part of the ownership group. At the conclusion of the visit, Bakay knew he had his man, and what started out as a favor to a mutual friend became a major career move for Drogba.

"When I was in our conference room, and he had the offer that we gave him after we did this whole tour, he looked at it, he shook his head," Bakay recalled. "He said, 'You know what? This is something very special. This is something very unique. This is different.' It was meant to be. It literally took seven months. It wasn't an overnight thing. I'm incredibly happy right now. It's unbelievable, partnering with somebody of his caliber, and moving to Phoenix, a city he had never been to in his life before, and to move his family there. That shows in his mind -- a person that has many other alternatives -- what he thinks the odds are of making it to MLS."

Bakay declined to go into many specifics of Drogba's ownership stake, but based on the few details he provided, it sounds as though Drogba will be a player for the first two years and "then part of the ownership group" where he'll have an executive role. It makes sense from Drogba's end to wait to see if the expansion bid is approved before actually joining the ownership ranks.

As for the present, the benefits of having someone of Drogba's stature on board have already begun to materialize. Bakay said that within an hour of the announcement the club sold nearly 300 tickets. The club is also moving ahead with plans to expand its current stadium so it will hold 10,000 fans, the better to keep up with demand. All of this sends a message to MLS as well.

"It's not a short-term stint," said Bakay. "So the vision of convincing a guy of Drogba's caliber, that is by itself a great statement to MLS on what this ownership team is capable of, what the vision is for the city and the sport. More importantly, beyond how he dominates the game here for the next couple of years, what can we learn from him? What are some of the experiences and connections he has in a global way? We're not talking about someone who is local, but global, and that's expanding our organization to a completely different level that frankly I don't think any of the other 11 cities have the luxury of.

"I'm trying to be as objective as I can, but if I'm in MLS' position, and if the franchise values are driven by media revenues, and if Phoenix is a giant, must-have media market and you've got a good ownership group there, and a stadium solution, I feel we are very well positioned."

There is still a long way to go in terms of the MLS expansion process. In the wake of Drogba's signing, you can bet that plenty more eyes will be on Phoenix.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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