In case you haven’t heard, Phoenix Rising are one of 12 teams/cities in the running to become an MLS Expansion team. Two teams will be picked by the end of 2017 with the expectation that play will begin in 2020 and two more will be decided at a later date. Even though that’s three seasons away and there is no guarantee Phoenix Rising will be picked at all, let alone in the next round of expansion, it seemed like a fun idea to think about who currently on the roster would stick around when the club moves up.
There is lots of recent history to look at with teams like Minnesota United (NASL) and Orlando City (USL) moving from lower division American soccer up to Major League Soccer. The vast majority of those clubs rosters did not make the move to MLS. When looking at Minnesota specifically, I count six players who moved up to MLS. Of those, only three have made a significant impact with Brent Kallman and Ibson getting significant minutes and Christian Ramirez lighting the league on fire.
Knowing that I’ll use three categories to determine who on the 2017 USL roster would be on the imaginary 2018 MLS roster: Definitely, Probably, and On the Bubble.
Definitely Moving Up
Didier Drogba – Obviously by 2020 Drogba will be retired (right!?) but in an imaginary 2018 MLS season, Drogba would still have one year left on his owner/player deal. He spent about 18 months in MLS with the Montreal Impact before joining PRFC this season. In his season and a half in the league he scored 21 goals (!) in regular season play.
Outside of Drogba, looking at this roster, no one else is a sure thing in my mind.
Probably Moving Up
Amadou Dia – I would love to say he’s a definite, but Dia was in MLS and had to resort to joining a USL team to revive his career after picking up an injury. Dia was also with the Montreal Impact (Drogba connection!) but spent the majority of his productive MLS time with Sporting Kansas City. He was a first round SuperDraft pick in 2015 and over a season and a half (before the trade to the Impact) he had 32 appearances (21 starts) for 2,134 minutes. If not for the injury, he’s probably still in the league and seems likely to return. He is still only 24-years-old and when playing at left back has arguably been the best defender on the field.
Luke Rooney – Rooney has arguably been the best midfielder on Phoenix Rising over the last two seasons. He unfortunately suffered a season ending knee injury in 2017 but even if he’s deep on the bench, he just feels like he should come up to MLS. In 2015 he scored eight goals and added five assists and was a bright spot on an otherwise poor team. He had three goals in 2017 before going down with injury.
On the Bubble
Jason Johnson – Johnson is currently having the best season of his career. He’s already 26-years-old and will be 27 by this fall and he’s bounced around USL and MLS since being drafted in 2013. That’s not the resume of a guy who definitely makes the team. Maybe he’s a late bloomer and he’ll keep getting better. Maybe this five goal season will be the best he ever accomplishes.
Alessandro Riggi – Riggi has been very exciting when he’s been healthy. He missed a chunk in the middle of the season but looks to be quickly returning to form. He’s still just 23-years-old and seems like the kind of player that could be at the bottom of an MLS roster and potentially sub on for a burst of speed and change of pace.
Shaun Wright-Phillips – SWP hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire but he has experience in MLS and if nothing else brings name value. That’s probably not enough to make the cut but to keep selling a “new” team you need “stars.”
Peter Ramage & Jordan Stewart – Both players have a vast amount of experience but are already in their mid-30’s. They have name value, but again, that probably won’t be enough. They are anchors for a defense that has really struggled to keep clean sheets. It seems like some bottom-of-the-league center backs that would be picked up in the MLS Expansion Draft could replicate that.
There are a few players where we simply need more time and they all joined the club recently. Mala, Kevon Lambert and Sam Hamilton may translate to MLS. Mala seems like an exciting prospect (despite picking up a red card in his debut) and Hamilton was the 15th overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. He made a start and three appearances for the Rapids but couldn’t stick with the team, despite them being one of the worst in the league. These three could slide up the list, but only time will tell us.