By Ethan Greni | May 6, 2021

By all accounts, soccer, or football, is the world’s most popular sport. “The beautiful game” is played in nearly every country around the world and garners global audiences during events like the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and the UEFA Champions League.

The United States is another matter, however.

In the United States, the four sports traditionally considered to be the “Big Four” are American football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Soccer is on the rise, with the country’s top professional league, Major League Soccer, continuously growing and expanding. But it still has a way to go before it turns the Big Four into the Big Five.

Still, even if soccer remains an afterthought for the casual American sports fan, the United States has funds and resources devoted to the sport that some countries can’t compete with, so there are plenty of incentive for players from those countries to make their way here.

Enter Solomon Asante, the 31-year-old captain of Phoenix Rising FC. He says growing up in the West African nation of Ghana made it difficult to advance to higher levels in soccer.

“It wasn’t easy, because the infrastructure is not like here,” Asante says. “We were lacking a lot of things, (like) pitches, so it was a bit challenging.”

Despite the obstacles in his way, he says he knew early on that he was a gifted player. He couldn’t have reached this point without help.

“When I was a kid, I knew I had the talent, and I started working toward that talent because that was the only thing I knew how to do best,” Asante says.

“I realized my talent, and I started working toward it, and then when I was going (through different levels), I came across so many people, with the coaches and top-class players, and now I’m here with a family. So, yeah, everyone has helped me.”

He says it was his former coach at Tout Puissant Mazembe, a professional club in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who persuaded him to come to the United States after he led Phoenix Rising.

“I think 2014, ’15, ’16, I had a coach back home, one of the French-speaking countries, Congo DR, Patrice Carteron, he came here in 2017,” Asante says about the former Phoenix Rising coach.

“So, he spoke to me. He told me to join him, and I think it was good opportunity. There was nothing more I could do there. I had to come here and get a new adventure.”

Adventure is certainly a good way of describing Asante’s time in the Valley. In just three seasons, he has won two USL Championship MVP awards and reached the USL Championship Final twice.

“Everything is perfect; everything is good so far,” Asante says. “They’ve taken me as one of their family. Everything is OK. They’ve taken very good care of me. The only thing I can do is pay them back, to try and get trophies and try and get awards for them.”

He’s far from his family, so the opportunities to communicate with them are limited to late at night Phoenix time, when it is early morning in Ghana.

“After practice now, when I go back to the apartment, I have to get some rest. Then, maybe around 10 p.m., I have to wake up and speak to the family back home,” Asante says. “So, I speak like four or five hours before I go back to sleep again.”

While that may sound like a nightmare schedule for some, Asante says it doesn’t bother him.

“No, I’m used to it, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’m used to it,” Asante says.

After defeating El Paso Locomotive FC in last year’s Western Conference Final, the team traveled to Tampa Bay in late October for the Final match on November 1.

On Halloween, the day before the Final, the match was canceled after multiple Tampa Bay Rowdies players tested positive for COVID-19. In lieu of a USL Championship title, both clubs were named champions of their respective conferences.

It was an ending nobody wanted to see, but Asante says he doesn’t dwell on things he can’t control.

“It was frustrating,” Asante says. “We had an ambition. We were ready. We wanted to get the cup because we’ve worked for it and we’ve waited for it for a long time. So, for it to be canceled, it was so bad for us, but as players, what can we do? We just have to let it go and keep going.”

Phoenix won’t have to wait long to get back to Tampa Bay, as the club will return to Florida to take on the Rowdies on May 15, in its third match of the season.

That match could be seen by some as a sort of unofficial Final for last season, but Asante says Phoenix Rising won’t see it that way.

“No, for us, every game is a game — if it’s quarterfinals, semifinals, Finals, regular game,” Asante says. “Every game, we approach it like a normal game, and we are going to do our best. We are going to do what we know how to do best to win.”

Still, it is a game he says he’s looking forward to.

“It’s going to be amazing, a place that we wanted to be last year, and then here we come now,” Asante says. “It’s going to be one of the good games, one of the nice environments. We will be happy to be there.”

Rising fans, however, can look forward to the team’s newest venue at Wild Horse Pass, part of the Gila River Indian Community. The stadium seats 10,000 spectators and will be open at 50% capacity when the season begins April 30 against San Diego Loyal SC.

“I think every club wants to get everything for its own,” Asante says.

“For Phoenix Rising to get its own stadium is amazing. It’s going to change a lot for us because we have two training pitches, and everything is nice here. We know that this is our stadium. We cannot let the fans down. As the players, we are going to do everything possible to keep going, to keep winning for the club, but I think it’s an amazing place.”

While he knows winning a USL Championship title is the most important goal, he admits winning a third consecutive MVP award is another objective he has in his sights.

“For sure, I want to get the third one,” he says. “I have had the MVP twice. Going for a third one isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be very difficult, and I know that. I’m planning on trying to work extra hard.

“And then to achieve the MVP, and then overall the cup, the Final cup, that’s the most important, because we’ve got the Western Conference (title) twice, but we don’t have the Final cup. We’re going to work very hard for this cup.”

Phoenix Rising