Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
The waiting crowd at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport the night of April 21 was unlike anything previously seen in the USL’s history.
And, for good reason.
The arrival of international superstar Didier Drogba as the latest signing for Phoenix Rising FC was the height of a year that saw an unprecedented number of household names feature within the league. With former Premier League champion Joe Cole and German international Marcel Schäfer featuring for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Cole’s former Chelsea teammate Shaun Wright-Phillips with Drogba in Phoenix, marquee names were on view for fans in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
“I’m happy to be here, and it’s an amazing welcome from the fans,” Drogba said upon his arrival. “I can’t wait to get started and to see the stadium [and] to see my teammates. And it’s going to be an amazing time here.”
Drogba’s first season in Phoenix certainly was a memorable one. Even while hampered by a midseason injury, the former Ivory Coast international notched 10 goals in the regular season and USL Cup Playoffs. From a goal on his debut against Vancouver in front of a packed Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex to one of the best goals of the season against LA a couple of months later, the quality that had helped Drogba claim the UEFA Champions League was still on show throughout the year.
Meanwhile in Tampa Bay, the duo of Cole and Schäfer helped power the Rowdies to become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Schäfer notched 11 assists and also became known around the league for his ability to score from long-distance, as he twice landed on the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 for tremendous finishes against FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls II. The former German international’s selection to the USL All-League First Team was a just reward for an outstanding season.
Cole, on the other hand, showed off his killer instinct in the final third with seven goals and five assists, his passing touch still reminiscent of his time in the Premier League and on the international stage for England. Neither player shows any signs of slowing down as the Rowdies prepare their challenge for the USL Cup in 2018.
Other players also entered the national consciousness over the year, showing the potential for the coming years in their young careers. The likes of Jamaican internationals Cory Burke and Romario Williams starred in the Reggae Boyz’s run to the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, while other young standouts like Louisville City FC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye and the Swope Park Rangers’ Amer Didic both earned their first call-ups to Canada’s full national team in addition to leading their teams to the 2017 USL Cup.
But thanks to the likes of Drogba, Schäfer, Wright-Phillips and Cole, the USL’s 2017 was one like never before, setting the stage for what could be in the future for the league.