Didier Drogba takes in the crowd during the club's 2-1 win over Whitecaps FC 2 (Michael Rincon/PHXRisingFC.com)
Most fans who filed into the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex on Saturday night were just hoping to catch a glimpse of an international soccer icon donning their local team’s jersey.
Instead, Didier Drogba put on an unforgettable show that will be burned into the minds of the 7,062 who fans who watched it.
After a six week wait, Drogba dominated in his Phoenix Rising FC debut match, leading the club to a 2-1 victory against Whitecaps FC 2.
A goal and game-winning assist only began to describe an incredible night for the Ivorian Coast star.
“It was very difficult for me after six months without practicing and it took me five weeks to get back into this kind of shape,” Drogba said after playing the entirety of the match. “But it’s good to start [with] a goal and to start with a few points.”
From the beginning, Drogba imposed his will on the Whitecaps FC 2 defense. Sporting the captain’s armband, the striker took the opening kickoff with his first touch, and nearly created a goal with his second. In the fourth minute, Drogba sent a pass behind the Whitecaps FC 2 defense, freeing up his former Chelsea and current Phoenix teammate Shaun Wright-Philips for a clean shot on goal and forcing Whitecaps FC 2 goalie Sean Melvin into his first of many saves of the night.
In the 15th minute, Drogba took a free kick from the left flank that Melvin touched off the crossbar. Then Melvin denied another curling effort in the 29th minute. Less than ten minutes later in the 36th minute, Drogba hit the woodwork again, directing a header off the bottom of the crossbar but not across the goal line.
“We were consistent in our movements and the way we were moving and defending,” Drogba said. “When it’s like (that), I know that there’s more chances coming so I was trying to stay focused.”
His persistence finally paid off in the 40th minute.
Fellow Rising FC debutant Amadou Dia sent in a pacey cross from the left wing, allowing Drogba to rise above a defender and smash the ball with his head into the corner of the goal. Melvin got a hand to it, but not nearly enough to keep the header out. Rising FC had finally broken through, thanks to its newest star.
“We were a bit more efficient than them and I think we played a bit more with our head,” Drogba said. “It always feels good to score a goal and it’s nice to make history but that’s not the most important for me.”
Whitecaps FC 2 equalized with a penalty in the second half, thrusting Drogba back onto center stage.
As Vancouver tried maneuvering their way up the pitch, Drogba muscled the ball away from Whitecaps 2 midfielder Ben McKendry, turned up field and saw Wright-Phillips running unmarked down the right flank. He sent a no-look pass that direction, allowing Wright-Philips to pick up the ball with speed and rifle the game-winner into the bottom corner.
“Old guys, old times, same goals,” Drogba joked after the game. “I know his run, I know where he’s going off the ball and I’m trying to wait at the last moment to give him the perfect pass. It wasn’t perfect but the goal was nice.”
Added Wright-Phillips: “I think (Drogba) is very important to bring something different to the game. It also lifts everybody and he expects a lot so people have to play to that potential which is fantastic for the team and the club.”
After the game, Drogba announced via Instagram that his performance had been dedicated to his fallen countryman, Chieck Tiote, an Ivorian Coast footballer who died during a practice with his Chinese League club. Even with a heavy heart, Drogba was able to lift the spirits of not only Phoenix Rising fans, but soccer fans around the world.
“Nothing different, you know, it’s still the game, it’s still the beautiful game and I wanted to enjoy it,” Drogba said. “I was enjoying it today and that’s the most important part.”