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USL's ambitious efforts paying off with rapid growth, 'great ownership'

USL's ambitious efforts paying off with rapid growth, 'great ownership'
- (Phoenix Rising Football Club)

Didier Drogba has appeared in three World Cups, played more than 250 games for Chelsea in the English Premier League and once delivered the game-winning penalty kick in a Champions League final.

But this year, at age 39, he has taken on the biggest challenge of his career: He has agreed to spend the summer in Phoenix, where the temperatures are regularly 30 degrees higher than what Drogba experienced growing up in West Africa.

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"People have spoken to me about that," Drogba said Friday. "It's quite scary what they're saying. But I really love the heat."

There's heat. Then there's Arizona in July.

In any case, Drogba has agreed to endure a summer there as player-owner of Phoenix Rising FC, a fourth-year USL team whose efforts to prove a flower can grow even in the desert is emblematic of the Division II league's mercurial and Quixotic growth over the last seven years.

Since its first season in 2011, USL has doubled in size to 30 teams – making it the world's largest tier-two league – by adding franchises in 13 states and two Canadian provinces. Fresno, Las Vegas and Nashville will join next season with Birmingham and up to eight additional clubs being added by 2020.

Attendance, meanwhile, has grown by more than 32% in each of the last two seasons – albeit to a modest 4,179 a game. And the league, second only to MLS on the U.S. soccer pyramid, recently announced plans to launch a Division III league in 2019, further expanding its reach.

It's an ambitious model, one league president Jake Edwards says can succeed only if the USL continues to draw passionate, professional and prosperous owners. Which is where Drogba and Phoenix Rising come in.

The team reorganized last year when it was sold to an investment group headed by Berke Bakay, the Turkish-born CEO of the Kona Grill restaurant chain. He assumed an ownership team that included Pete Wentz, bassist for Fall Out Boy, and music impresario Diplo, then expanded both its celebrity and wealth by adding Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy and Drogba.

"The ownership we have now, I would stack up against any Division II league in the world," Edwards said. "And we've worked hard to achieve that, to attract those kinds of owners."

In addition to the well-heeled and well-known Phoenix group, USL owners who joined the league since 2015 include Spurs Sports & Entertainment, which owns San Antonio FC as well the NBA's San Antonio Spurs; Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, who is part of Sacramento Republic's ownership group; and Carl Lindner III, co-CEO of American Financial Group and majority owner of FC Cincinnati.

Cumulatively USL owners — excluding MLS-managed teams such as Galaxy II — are worth a collective $4 billion.

And while some of them signed on with an eye toward joining MLS someday, others such as businessman James Keston, who bought the Orange County Blues in September, consider USL a major league in its own right.

Keston, who once harbored ambitions of owning part of an MLS franchise, wouldn't say what it cost to buy the Blues but confirmed it was more the USL's current $5 million expansion fee — or about three times what each of Chivas USA's four original owners paid individually to join MLS in 2005.

"You're seeing great ownership come in," said Keston, who rechristened his team Orange County SC and will soon move it into a new 5,000-seat stadium in Irvine's Great Park. "In the next two years you'll hear a lot more everywhere around the United States about ownership groups that want to come in and want to spend real capital and want to build soccer.

"MLS is one model. USL is a completely different model. People like me – especially ones who saw MLS 10, 15 years ago and found it very interesting – now look at USL and see that same interesting growth and say there are amazing things we can do with this business."

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USL has professionalized in other ways, too, investing $10 million in USL Productions, a broadcasting and content-development arm, and reaching agreement for Sirius XM to carry a game of the week and a weekly one-hour talk program on satellite radio.

But Keston said he doesn't believe MLS and the USL — who have a partnership regarding player development — are competing for fans. Although MLS will have two teams within 45 miles of Irvine when LAFC opens play next year, Keston said the explosive growth of soccer in recent years has created a thirst for the sport one league can't quench alone.

"We're Orange County's team," Keston said. "And there are plenty of people in Orange County who want to see a high-quality product and stay in Orange County."

(However, Keston will get competition from the NASL expansion team that will begin play next season at Cal State Fullerton, especially if former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda becomes the team's manager.)

And that's where Drogba fits in. Although the former EPL and Montreal Impact star is listed as a player/owner with Phoenix Rising, he has not invested any money in the club and has yet to play a minute for the team.

Instead his role is something of an ambassadorial one, using his experience and celebrity to promote the team on and off the pitch.

"I have the opportunity, at age 39, to give something back to this city and sport," Drogba said. "Football is a universal sport so if I can help the USL by promoting it and playing here, I will."

In addition to Drogba, other USL players with world-class pedigrees include Shaun Wright-Phillips (EPL/Phoenix Rising), Joe Cole (EPL/Tampa Bay) and Richard Chaplow (English Championship/Orange County SC).

Drogba would like to expand that list, pointing to David Beckham's success drawing international stars to MLS to say he'd like to have a similar impact on USL.

"Whoever wants to come here and play, I will advise them to come," he said. "Because I think the league will become even more competitive."

Twitter: kbaxter11

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