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Inside Drogba's road to Phoenix and his role in its promising MLS expansion bid

How did Didier Drogba wind up in Phoenix? Inside the Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend's path to the USL club and his role in its MLS expansion aspirations.

When Didier Drogba left Chelsea after eight legendary seasons and signed with a club in Shanghai, his wife and children remained in London. When Drogba then moved to Galatasary in 2013, he did so alone. And when he joined the Montreal Impact two years ago, his family still stayed behind.

But they’re moving to Phoenix.

“For [Drogba] to move his family and their roots and put his kids into the schools in Phoenix, Arizona—it’s how much he believes in this,” said Berke Bakay, the investor leading the effort to bring an MLS team to the Valley of the Sun. “He’s not here to make another million. He’s not here just to finish his career in the USL. He’s coming here because he believes in this project.”

On Tuesday, Bakay and Drogba were among the hopefuls who welcomed the league’s president, Mark Abbott, to Arizona’s capital. It wasn’t the first time MLS came for a look. Abbott himself was there before the league even launched, assessing Arizona State and the surrounding area as as a possible team site. In the early 2000s, Lamar Hunt paid a visit. That was back when no one could have imagined the Sporting Kansas City phenomenon. Both Abbott and Hunt were intrigued by the 510-acre piece of property on the southwest corner of the Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Reservation, just a couple miles from ASU. Even then, it was seen as a promising stadium location.

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Abbott was there again Tuesday along with the league’s executive VP of communications, Dan Courtemanche. This time, however, the prospects in Phoenix are far more promising. MLS obviously is in a far different place. Phoenix and the 11 other markets jostling to pay a $150 million expansion fee are evidence. And this visit wasn’t about MLS wondering whether Phoenix might fill out the roster or provide relief for a struggling franchise. It was because rich, well-connected investors with an ambitious stadium plan intend to force the league’s hand.

“What we told MLS [Tuesday], and this is from one my partners, Tim Riester, he said, ‘At no point should you tell us no. Just tell us what it will take to make it happen,’” Bakay told SI.com. “That’s our approach.”

Bakay, an Istanbul native who made his money in private equity and the restaurant business, is doing just about everything possible to back up those words. First, he bought and rebranded the city’s struggling USL club last year. In 2016, it averaged just 1,470 fans per game. This year, playing at a temporary stadium built on the Salt-River Pima Maricopa site, Phoenix Rising has averaged 6,600 across its first four matches. Bakay said the club might have to expand the venue this summer. Among Rising’s players are Mexican icon Omar Bravo and former England midfielder Shaun Wright-Phillips, who have uncommon pedigree for the American second tier.

Bakay also reached a deal with Reservation leaders to privately and jointly fund an MLS stadium and soccer complex (several designs and funding models are being considered, he said), and he’s formed an alliance with ASU that could lead to Rising playing at renovated Sun Devil Stadium if it enters MLS before its new stadium is ready. In addition, he’s been able to enlist additional investors to a group that includes musicians Pete Wentz and Diplo and Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy. And Bakay said he’ll bring more aboard if necessary.

Securing a partnership with Drogba may have been the most ambitious goal of all. There was no shortage of business and/or playing opportunities for a man who’s already a legend on two continents. But Bakay knew that Arizona soccer didn’t have a face. There was no existing team to lean on, no iconic ex-players hanging around and no established sports owner with whom the league, fans and media were familiar.

Bakay began his pursuit of Drogba last summer through a close mutual friend back in Istanbul, where Drogba played for Galatasaray in 2013-14.

“I needed I'm playing for our team and to be the face of the organization and our MLS bid because I think he’s the type of person, as a striker, who will put us on the map,” Bakay said. “More importantly, there’s his humanitarian work. He’s stopped wars. He’s extremely respected. He can set us apart from any other city that’s fighting to get into MLS.”

After a few months of conversations, Drogba visited Phoenix and met Bakay and his partners.

“I said, ‘Look, this is a unique project and I think you still have a couple years in you. You can dominate this league. Phoenix is a beautiful place and I think you could be an owner of an MLS team, which is kind of unique. I think that’s a cool outcome for you,’” Bakay said. “He did his research. He took his time. I talked to him for eight months. And then he said, ‘I’m in.’”

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Speaking at Tuesday’s news conference, Drogba—wearing a red and black Rising scarf—said, “Phoenix won my heart. The project won my heart.”

A month ago, Rising and Drogba, 39, announced a partnership under which the forward will play for two seasons and then transition into ownership. He’ll hold a minority stake. Bakay said Drogba’s role with the club at that point still hasn’t been decided, but he expects his marquee player to take the field on either May 20 at San Antonio FC or, at the latest, May 27 at LA Galaxy II.

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Meanwhile, Drogba already is working behind the scenes. He was part of Tuesday’s meetings and tour, he’s been at Rising games mingling with fans and he intends to speak with media more frequently than he did as a reticent member of the Impact.

“They had a wonderful conversation [Tuesday],” Bakay said of Drogba and Abbott. “They knew exactly what [Drogba] was doing and why he’s here. They’re pleased with that. … For MLS to be able to utilize Didier around the world, not just as a player but as a name that’s recognized as an owner, it will further increase its credibility around the world. He’s a household name.”

In 2010, TIME put Drogba on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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Abbott joined Drogba at the news conference and said, “There is unbelievable progress that Phoenix Rising is building here. … I was struck by the attention that was paid to create a really great fan experience [at the temporary stadium]. This is just the beginning what this ownership group is trying to accomplish.”