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Has Didier Drogba played his final game as a professional?

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LOUISVILLE, KY — Didier Drogba‘s dazzling, star-studded career may have come to an end Thursday night under the bright lights of Lynn Stadium, in front of a packed house of 7,025 fans for the USL Cup final.

With eight league or cup titles and dozens of individual awards, the Chelsea legend was unable to add one final trophy to his mantlepiece, as Louisville City scored on a goal-mouth scramble off a corner kick and held on to win its second-straight USL Cup title. Drogba finished the game with six shots, but just one on target, a 40-yard free kick from the center of the field that Louisville City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh parried away.

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It’s a setting he likely never expected he’d finish his career in, even when he signed with Phoenix Rising in 2017 and became part of the team’s ownership group. Phoenix looked mired for a poor finish before Rick Schantz took over as coach in June, leading the team into the playoffs and on a magic run to the final, which included three goals from Drogba in the playoffs.

It looked as though the USL script writers were bringing the drama to a crescendo, with Drogba adding a USL Cup to go with his four Premier League titles, four FA Cups and UEFA Champions League trophy, among others.

Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, and perhaps more fortunately for Louisville City, Drogba’s touch was off on Thursday evening. Four of his free kicks went flying over the crossbar and he failed to fully connect on a late-game, audacious bicycle kick attempt. Drogba also earned a frustration yellow card for a tackle from behind.

“Look, you can see as the game goes on, we were down 1-0, his desire to get the ball, his desire to be involved (is there),” Schantz said. “He’s 40-years old playing against 20-somethings in a league that’s up and coming. It’s not easy. The opportunity I got to coach him this year blows me away that I was able to share the field with one of the best players in the sport.”

Even in defeat, Drogba remained humble and gracious, staying on the field to watch the trophy ceremony with his team, congratulating the squad and coach for making it to the final and telling them to keep their heads up.

“It’s been incredible,” Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said following the match. “His talent on the field speaks for itself but the biggest thing I take, the level he’s been at and everything he’s won, he’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. He’s invited us to his house for team barbecues, opened his doors, cooked for us for hours, treated everyone as an equal, with respect.

“That says a lot considering the guys he’s played with. Coming to USL and treating us like that, teaching us everything he’s learned, that’s one of the most valuable things I’ll take, No matter what level you get to, you can still be humble and treat everyone with respect.”

While Drogba took much of the spotlight ahead of the game, it was a trio of unsung players who shut him down all evening; Midfielder and Louisville City captain Paolo DelPiccolo and centerbacks Paco Craig and Alexis Souahy. For all the experience LouCity returned with DelPiccolo, Craig and others, Souahy is just a 23-year-old rookie playing in his first cup final. And yet, the young defender from France who was released from Le Havre’s youth academy four years ago played as well and resolutely as he had all season. Craig, a West Ham academy alum and USL First-Team XI honoree, was strong as always against the Ivorian, and DelPiccolo and Drogba each had their share of battles in midfield.

“(They were) so good, so good,” Hackworth said about his defenders performance on Drogba. “Especially, Paco, he’s first team and everyone knows how good he is, but Alexis is a star on the rise and we might be hearing his name for a long time to come at a high level.”

Not to be lost in the talk about Drogba is the incredible achievement for Louisville City to win a second consecutive title. Louisville City lost its coach, James O’Connor, to Orlando City at the end of June, and the team ended up going with a triumvirate of player coaches for the next 6 weeks of action: DelPiccolo, George Davis and the USL Cup MVP Luke Spencer.

John Hackworth took over in mid-August and after making some little adjustments – tightening the defensive line and introducing more high pressing to force turnovers – LouCity found its rhythm. Even with five coaches this season, the team was steady all year long until down the stretch, when LouCity put on the after burners. The club finished the year winning its last ten games, including the final four in the playoffs to take the USL crown.

“The way they competed in training, and then went back in the locker room, I thought I was going to have to settle some fights,” said Hackworth, noting he knew this team could make a run for the title within the first couple days of practice. “But they’re a brotherhood. They have this high standard, they want to be pushed, they want to be coached. I thought, ‘if we can get this right…if we can clean up some things, it’s going to happen.'”

Drogba didn’t speak to the media following the match, but at the pre-match press conference, he revealed that after Phoenix Rising’s 2-1 win over Orange County for the Western Conference title, he received a few phone calls about continuing playing. He then hinted that perhaps the USL Cup final wouldn’t be the finale to his career.

When asked if Drogba revealed anything to him following the match, Schantz deadpanned and said, “That will be a separate press conference.”

USL Playoffs: FC Cincinnati, Phoenix’s Drogba stage farewell tours

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The last three clubs to participate in the USL Cup Final are still alive in the 2018 edition of the USL Cup Playoffs, but all eyes are a fourth club.

FC Cincinnati hasn’t lost a match since May 26, the soon-to-be MLS club kickoff off a 24-match unbeaten run with a win over New York Red Bulls II a week later.

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Those two sides meet in the quarterfinals on Saturday, a match-up of the top team in the league and a Red Bulls side which won the cup in 2016.

The winner will meet either No. 2 seed Louisville City or No. 6 Bethlehem Steel. Louisville is led by USL Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster, a 25-year-old Londoner who made a single 12-minute appearance for Tottenham Hotspur against Wigan in 2014.

Out West, there’s another Premier League experienced player who plenty more neutrals have known for some time. Didier Drogba returned after four months off to play three of Phoenix Rising’s final four regular season matches, turning on the juice with a goal in the first round of the playoffs as Phoenix blew out Portland Timbers 2.

Phoenix faces No. 7 seed Swope Park Rangers, which has lost the past two USL Cup finals and should not be overlooked.

The fourth quarterfinal sees Orange County SC and Reno 1868 FC meeting in Irvine. OC is paced by former Akron University standout Aodhan Quinn, who has 11 goals and 15 assists. Former Southampton man Jos Hooiveld is also on the squad, and may be tasked with shutting down Jamaican striker Brian Brown.

Phoenix Rising releases gorgeous soccer-specific stadium renderings

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The Phoenix Rising FC franchise is bidding for an MLS expansion bid some time down the road, and the club just showed off what it could offer to MLS in terms of a home venue.

The club released its first stadium renderings for an open-air 21,000 seat stadium with an awning over the seats but an opening over the playing surface. Phoenix Rising is working with stadium design firm Populous and a local firm to design the futuristic-looking stadium.

Phoenix Rising is co-owned by former Chelsea great Didier Drogba, who is playing his final season on the field this year.

Due to Phoenix’s hot climate, especially during July and August – the middle of the soccer season in the U.S. – the club is proposing a stadium that is engineered to maximize wind and airflow through the concourses and entrances, water walls to cool fans as they enter the stadium, and plenty of shade in the seats. The majority of seats will be on the west-end of the stadium, facing away from the sun.

“The renderings really bring the stadium to life,” said Brett Johnson, co-chairman for Phoenix Rising FC. “We are excited for the fans to see the innovative, one-of-a-kind design with special attention paid to maximizing shade and airflow in the stadium to ensure player and fan comfort.”

Regardless of if Phoenix Rising makes it to MLS, if the ownership group commits to fund and build a modern stadium as close to the renderings as possible, it can only be a boon to professional soccer in the Southwest.

There are some controversies involved though. Due to the climate, it would be tough to play games during the dog days of summer at home, forcing Phoenix to possible play a majority of its summer matches on the road or later in the evening once the sun has set.

In addition, the stadium site is located 10 miles east of downtown Phoenix. According to a report from SI.com, MLS has allowed the site to be used, but it bucks the trend and request from MLS for teams to build downtown stadiums that can attract more fans. Phoenix’s argument with their preferred stadium site is that it’s located near two highways and isn’t far from Arizona State University.

The site is located on land owned by Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which has made the land purchase complicated as well. But if the team feels comfortable enough to release stadium renderings, perhaps they feel confident a land deal will be agreed soon.

Ahead of last season, Drogba admits interest in Marseille role

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Didier Drogba loves everything about soccer, but his time on the field is finally coming to a close.

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The Phoenix Rising owner turned 40 on Sunday, and signaled the end of his playing career in November with an announcement than the 2018 USL season would be his last.

But a Telefoot interview shows the player-owner may take a role with American businessman Frank McCourt’s Marseille project (translated by ESPN):

“We’ll have to see what is offered. I’m always ready to help. … In any case, Marseille are showing good things this year. Rudi Garcia’s project is taking shape, they’re building a team with young players. It’s excellent to stay in the top three with a team like that. As a fan, I have a lot of faith in them.”

Drogba scored 32 times in his only season at Marseille.

He also netted nine times with three assists in 14 appearances last season as Phoenix finished fifth in the USL’s Western Conference before bowing out in penalty kicks against Swope Park Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.

Didier Drogba announces plan to retire

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Didier Drogba‘s famous goal celebration will become a relic in 2018.

Drogba, 39, is still playing in the second-tier of North American soccer for the club he has an ownership stake in, Phoenix Rising FC.

The Ivorian forward released a statement on Tuesday confirming he plans to retire in 2018.

“Ah, do you want a scoop? I think next year will be my last season,” Drogba said. “At some point you have to stop. I need to have time for my other projects. It’s good to play, but at 39, it holds me back a bit.”

Drogba has ripped it up in the USL this season for Phoenix, scoring 10 goals in 14 appearances, with his goals including trademark free kicks and powerful finishes.

A Chelsea legend, Drogba won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and a UEFA Champions League during his two stints at Stamford Bridge.

He is also the leading goalscorer in Ivory Coast’s history with 65 goals in 104 games and is the highest-scoring African player in Champions League history with 44 goals and the highest-scoring African player in PL history with 104 goals.

Drogba scored 164 goals in 381 appearances for Chelsea in all competitions and was influential in their first-ever European title success as he scored an equalizer to take the game to extra time and then scored the winning penalty kick against Bayern Munich in 2011-12.

The much-traveled forward also had spells at Le Mans, Guingamp, Marseille, Galatasaray, Shanghai Shenhua and Montreal Impact before landing at Phoenix for the twilight of his career where he became as much an ambassador for the club than a player.

It has long been suggested that Drogba will become part of Chelsea’s staff behind-the-scenes given his close friendship with Russian owner Roman Abramovich.

Whatever he does after he stops playing, Drogba’s legacy as one of the greatest strikers the game has ever seen will be intact. Even if many people didn’t know he was still playing in the USL for the past few seasons…