Much of the MLS expansion focus is on which of the three remaining finalists for the first round of growth gets the remaining bid, but the cities on the outside waiting for the following round are still mobilizing for their own chances.
MLS recently admitted Nashville and Miami to go to 25 teams and said it will choose one of Sacramento, Cincinnati and Detroit for its 26th franchise. But two more bids will follow after that to take the league to 28 teams, and USL's Phoenix Rising isn't sitting quietly. One of the 12 original bids when the latest expansion process began a little more than a year ago, the club padded its bid by adding Chinese billionaire and hotel magnate Alex Zheng and his Advantage Sports Union company to its investor group on Saturday.
Zheng, who also is part of the ownership group for Ligue 1's OGC Nice, adds significant financial clout to Phoenix Rising's MLS profile–which has proven to be important in the selection process. With expansion fees rising to at least $150 million and operating costs piling on from there, financial largesse and stability are necessities for any successful bid.
Phoenix's bid has been headed by Berke Bakay and was boosted by the addition of Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba, who joined as a part-player/part-owner last year. The eclectic ownership group also includes musicians Diplo and Pete Wentz and baseball pitcher Brandon McCarthy. As the founder and co-chairman of the Plateno Hotel Group, Zheng could be the piece that puts Phoenix–the most populated city vying for a club and the 12th-most populated metro area in the country–firmly on MLS's radar.
“We were fortunate and flattered to meet with a number of impressive investors who have interest in Phoenix Rising FC, but Alex Zheng was exceptional,” Bakay said in a statement. “His amazing knowledge, experience and intellect were only exceeded by his incredible personality and passion for our sport. My partners and I were unanimous in our desire to add Advantage Sports Union to our ownership and Alex to Phoenix Rising FC’s leadership.”
Advantage Sports Union has tentacles in Zheng's native China, where it is building a youth soccer academy, according to Phoenix Rising. Zheng also has personal ties to Phoenix, as his daughter was born there.
“Phoenix Rising FC has wonderful potential,” Zheng said in a statement. “Soccer fans throughout Arizona and across the United States are embracing the team after only its first year, and its soccer operations are very impressive. I am confident we can assist the club with its MLS aspirations and create an unprecedented pathway from youth soccer to the highest levels of international competition with Arizona as the North American hub."
Phoenix Rising, which was sold and rebranded in 2017 after three seasons as Arizona United SC, will compete in USL again in 2018 after a 2017 in which it went 17-8-7, good for fifth place in the Western Conference. It made the postseason but bowed out in the first round, losing to Swope Park Rangers in penalties. There will be 33 teams in USL in 2018, with the season kicking off on March 16.