A look inside Phoenix Rising FC with owner Berke Bakay

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From Last Word on Soccer, by Roy Emmanuel

The United Soccer League (USL) continues to grow across the United States, with new teams joining the league and the current clubs aiming for further success.

One such example is Phoenix Rising FC, bringing ambition and excitement to fans in Arizona. Rebranded from Arizona United SC, the franchise recently unveiled plans to build a soccer-specific stadium in time for the upcoming 2017 season.

Last Word On Sports had a chance to speak with team owner Berke Bakay about the new look, the new stadium and what to expect in the future from Phoenix Rising FC.

Roy Emanuel: “What do you expect to change with the team’s rebranding and the new stadium?”

Berke Bakay: “If you look at the history of the team and our predecessor Arizona United SC, one of the primary reasons, in my opinion, that the attendance was much lower than its ultimate potential was the fact that we were playing in a baseball stadium. In these types of settings, there were a couple of issues.

First, it is incredibly difficult to truly reflect the pure soccer experience in a baseball stadium. Period. It just doesn’t happen. And number two, if you look at the spring training schedule, you have even more problems. The month of April, which in an ideal world is one of your most attractive months because of the climate here in Arizona, our predecessor had to forego April in the form of home games because there was spring training in the baseball stadium.

They had to front-load their away games, playing four or five away games in a row. That is certainly not the way to start the season.

Your fans are excited to see you and they can’t see you at home for five games in a row. You also miss a great opportunity to pack your stadium because the weather is beautiful at that time of the year. You’re not creating an ambiance in a baseball stadium.

And also the location. If you look at where we are building our pop-up stadium, its 101 and 202. You’re close to the East Valley and near Chandler and Gilbert. You’re in Tempe, just a mile away from Arizona State University. You’re a few miles away from the airport, but you have fans from Scottsdale and Paradise Valley just three or four miles north. In my opinion, there is no better location that you would want to build a stadium in.

It will certainly be more attractive than what the team had before.”

RE: “Will the stadium be completed for the 2017 season?”

BB: “Yes, it will. Our goal is to have it ready for the first match of the season, around late March or early April.

Similar to Bonney Field in Sacramento, the pop-up stadium model allows us to go in and complete the project in a couple of months as opposed to a couple of years.”

RE: “Are there specific ideas in mind for the fan experience inside the new stadium?”

BB: “It is all about the fan experience. What we are going to do when the season starts, we will see a lot of food trucks. We will make sure there is a wonderful game day experience there. There will be a supporters section, as well as corporate suites for companies like other sports venues in the Valley. Both of those areas had been lacking, as the best you could have grabbed before was a hot dog out in the bleachers. So we are certainly trying to create a better ambiance and atmosphere.

We have a very impressive ownership group. Everybody really brings something different to the table. From public company CEOs to professional athletes to entertainment superstars like Diplo and Pete Wentz, all the way to lawyers, real estate professionals and entrepreneurs. What we wanted to do as an ownership group when we came in was to really start with a clean slate and have a fresh start. New brand, new logo, new crest, new home. Why not a new name, right?

We had dozens and dozens of options for the new name. But ultimately, our crest shape harkens back to the original purpose of badges in the Middle Ages, if you will, giving people on the battlefield a symbol to which they can identify with and rally. We were inspired by that and the Phoenix Rising FC crest really represents what we stand for, which is service, tradition, community, unity and football. And the soccer ball makes it clear to our fans what kind of a team we are, a professional soccer team. This was something that was missing from the Arizona United logo, so we wanted the opposite of that.

Finally, the bird rising from the flames represents the perseverance and the powerful rapid growth of our capital city, Phoenix. There are quite a few meanings within the logo, including the colors. The gold represents our home state of Arizona. The black symbolizes a rebellious nature and strength. While the red signifies a fire and passion for the sport, along with the victory that we strive for each and every match. The white stands for integrity, for the game, our opponents and within ourselves. Finally, there is gray on the border which signifies control.”

RE: “After meeting with supporter groups and engaging with the local community, were there certain areas that were addressed and did your future plans change in any way after those conversations?”

BB: “Our supporter groups and fans are the core of everything that we do. If you don’t have fans and supporters, then nothing you do has any meaning. And they are extremely passionate. I’ve already seen dozens of logos and magnets on cars in the streets here, which is very exciting when you are launching a brand.

Our new plans to engage with local Phoenix community will include an unprecedented commitment to the youth soccer in Arizona. We are sponsoring and partnering with Arizona Youth Soccer Association (AYSA). The state of Arizona’s top two competitive youth soccer leagues are being renamed as the Phoenix Rising Premier League and the Phoenix Rising State League.

We will also be assigning our players as mentors for many of the top youth soccer clubs in the Valley, where they will work directly with players and coaches every week. We have an all-inclusive approach to engaging the local Phoenix community, and youth soccer in general.”

RE: “How involved are Diplo and Pete Wentz in the team’s operations?”

BB: “Obviously they have incredibly busy schedules, so they will not usually be a part of the organizational operations. If you follow these guys on social media, we go to sleep and they are in a different part of the world! They are just not in one place for more than 24 hours.

But they both have a lot of passion for what we do. Diplo’s appearance on Men In Blazers was great exposure and as the new season begins, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them here more often.”

RE: “How important is making the playoffs this coming season, have there been specific players targeted and what are the overall expectations for 2017?”

BB: “Expectations are very high. I do not think it is even arguable, we have the best coach in USL. Period. We have one of the best coaches in all of North America with Frank Yallop.

He is really one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He is not worried about anything other than making objectives work successfully. Frank is truly a gentleman. I really can’t say enough nice things about him and we are blessed to have him.

He has two MLS championships, a Supporters’ Shield and has worked with major stars like David Beckham. He was a part of the inaugural MLS season as a player, coached the Canadian national team and played in England for over a decade. His experience is incredible.

We just hired an assistant coach that I am not at liberty to give you his name yet, but fans will be pleasantly surprised. A very recognizable name here in Arizona. We have a great coaching staff.

Along with that, we have an ownership group that is very competitive. Everybody is interested in winning. So for me, its not even just about making the playoffs but I want to be the best team in USL. I’m not saying that’s going to happen immediately in our first season, but that’s our vision and that is our goal. That’s why we are going to work hard to bring a USL Cup to the Valley. We have all of the elements in place.

It starts with the coaching staff and ownership being able to work financially towards the club’s goals. And that does not necessarily mean that you have to have the most expensive team. Throwing money around is not usually the solution, but having the foresight to put together a team that meshes is a part of the strategy.

But having said all of that, it doesn’t mean that we will not have potential surprises in terms of very recognizable players as we move along. But that is for another day.”

RE: “What are your thoughts on FC Arizona beginning play with the National Premier Soccer League in the Mesa area?”

BB: “Ultimately, Phoenix Rising FC is the only professional soccer team in the Valley and playing the game at the highest level that is available. FC Arizona will probably have different goals, different budgets and a different vision.

But I wish everybody that works for the benefit of soccer the best of luck in everything that they do, but I only really focus on what we can do and who we are.”

RE: “With some of the recent financial struggles for some North American Soccer League sides, are there any elements of the American soccer landscape that affect your future plans and is an MLS franchise a part of those plans?”

BB: “Two NASL teams have been accepted to join our league for the 2017 season and I can only imagine the remaining five or six teams are eager to join up with USL as well. Phoenix Rising FC will welcome the added competition, and it is important for us to be a part of a stable and growing professional soccer league in the United States. USL attendance was up over thirty percent last season.

With so many impressive individuals working within it, its not a surprise that the USL is the most stable and strong league in the country after Major League Soccer. We are very comfortable and proud to be a part of our league.

I’m not worried about whats going on in the NASL, I’m just glad that we are a part of a very stable league that has doubled in size over the past few years.

As for MLS in the future, we have never tried to hide our desire to bring this team to highest level of soccer in the United States at some point. We need to walk before we can run.

If you look at expansion teams in MLS, they have some specific characteristics. They have a strong group of owners. They have a soccer-specific home, which we are putting up in the most attractive location in the Valley. And finally, there is a passionate group of fans that show up and support the team. So we need to prove ourselves, but I have no doubt that we are going to get there.”