Soccer, by virtue of the 210 countries that have professional leagues, takes players on meandering career paths.
It’s a lesson well exhibited by the 21 players on Phoenix Rising’s roster, but few more so than striker Claudio Repetto. Eight years ago, he began his professional career with Genoa when he graduated from the Italian Serie A club’s youth academy.
Between 2014 and 2017, Repetto’s career took him to a trio of fourth-division clubs on the Italian Riviera, then to the culture shock of an NAIA school in Des Moines, Iowa. It brought him to Coastal Carolina and two more fourth-division clubs, this time in the U.S. Last summer, he made 24 appearances with the USL’s Charleston Battery before signing with the Rising over the offseason.
The intended destination of Repetto’s journey is not second-division soccer 5,900 miles from home. To a player like Repetto, Phoenix’s primary purpose is as a launching pad.
Even Rising manager Rick Schantz — for whom winning is justifiably paramount — understands that much.
“This is what it's all about,” Schantz said, when asked about the potential of promising 23-year-old Arturo Rodriguez getting bought by an MLS club. “I would love for our players to get opportunities to go to higher levels.”
And yet, in his first press conference in Phoenix, Repetto said, “I came here to win and that's what Phoenix Rising does.”
Two weeks later, Baboucar Njie — a Gambian left-back who arrived in Phoenix by way of Division III North Carolina Wesleyan College — said, “It feels like (Phoenix) is where I should've been for a long time. I'm just ready. My goal is to just win a championship.”
In the context of major professional sports leagues, such quotes are fairly routine. But re-examine them through the lens of a launching pad. When was the last time a baseball player assigned to the El Paso Chihuahuas spoke of his desire to win a Triple-A West title?
It’s not simply PR, either. Last November, when the Rising’s season ended in the USL playoffs, players fell to the turf, jerseys over their heads to hide tears. None of the 11 players on the pitch that night bore the actions of a player concerned about his next career step — they wanted to win.
For Phoenix Rising, that’s the point.
In 2017, the club rebranded from Arizona United to Phoenix Rising “with the idea that we wanted to be a winning club,” as Schantz puts it.
That offseason, the Rising signed former English Premier League stars Didier Drogba and Shaun Wright-Phillips, along with former Mexico international Omar Bravo. Longtime MLS manager Frank Yallop was brought in to steer the ship.
“It was about winning,” Schantz said. “These were guys that didn't come here for the money, they came here because it's a beautiful place to play and they wanted to win trophies. That's what players do at that level. And I think through those first couple of years, we established what it takes to win, from following the details, meals, stretching, our regimen every day, how we attack every day.”
The Rising’s brass, from Schantz to general manager Bobby Dulle, understands the difficulty of maintaining that winning culture at the USL level.
Part of the equation is, as Schantz says, in the details. Within the constraints of a USL budget, the Rising operate as closely as they can to an MLS level, from how they travel to deals with local cryotherapy providers for post-match recovery.
There’s also the matter of acquiring players who fit with the club’s philosophy.
“We start with character, what kind of person,” Dulle said. “We look for captains and people that have been leaders, well respected in the locker room.”
By focusing their new signings on leadership personalities, Phoenix is able to maintain the culture it established by signing Drogba, Wright-Phillips and Bravo five years ago.
“(We) make sure that we're getting the right kind of person,” Schantz said. “Somebody that understands that they're part of something bigger than themselves rather than a person that just wants to come in here and use us to move on to the next level.”
There’s a compounding effect to that strategy, too. Over the past five years, the Rising have signed Kevon Lambert, Aodhan Quinn, Joey Farrell, Joey Calistri and Darnell King all, in part, because of their ability to command a locker room.
Now, those five form Phoenix’s leadership group, which Njie credited for his immediate comfortability after signing in December.
“I feel more unity here,” Njie said. “Not just on the field, but off the field.”
Over the past five seasons since its rebranding, that spirit has helped the Rising earn more points per game than any other club in USL. And, in return, the Rising can help players on their career trajectories.
“I tell players all the time, if their goal is to get to the MLS, they better succeed here,” Schantz said. “And in order to succeed here, you have to be a part of a bigger thing.”
The Rising go on the road for the first time this season on Saturday to face the Las Vegas Lights. The match will air at 7 p.m. on Bally Sports Arizona and ESPN+.
The Lights finished in last place in the Western Conference in 2021 and gained just one point from their four matches against Phoenix. Under first-year manager Enrique Duran, their struggles continued last week in the first game of the 2022 season, as they lost 2-0 to New Mexico United, while the Rising beat Monterey Bay, 4-2.
For Las Vegas, the primary reason for optimism is striker Cal Jennings. Jennings scored 10 goals in 20 games last year, while making six appearances for MLS club Los Angeles FC — Las Vegas’s parent club.
“They're very similar to what they were (last year),” Schantz said. “They're extremely good in offensive transition moments. They're a little weak in defensive transition. Their pressing is similar to ours. They can get exposed on direct football and I think New Mexico was pretty direct and played in behind quite a bit which cause problems for Vegas.
“Set pieces, I think they're not the most physical team. But they're capable of scoring goals and if they get an early goal or if they get out to a lead, they're gonna be tough to beat this year.”
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Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.