MEXICO CITY — Patrick Rakovsky had been trying to make the move to Phoenix Rising for quite some time.
“We probably asked Phoenix almost every transfer window if they would be interested,” Rakovsky said. “They always said no, because they had Andre Rawls. They had Ben Lundt.”
That Phoenix Rising was a first choice for Rakovsky for so long might come as a surprise. Many years ago, he’d made his professional debut on a much loftier stage, in the Bundesliga against Borussia Dortmund. He conceded his first goal to Robert Lewandowski.
“The first keeper got injured,” Rakovsky said. “I got thrown in. It was a little bit crazy. I was a big fan [of Dortmund]. I told the captain if he won the side, I would like to stand in front of the Dortmund fans. So that happened, we changed sides, walked into it.
“There was a bit of drama before the game because I came from the big rivals, Schalke and Dortmund are like LAFC and Galaxy or something like that. I ran towards the goal, and then there’s a five minute delay because they have to clean the box because they just started throwing stuff at me. That was my debut at 18 years old.”
Rakovsky started playing football from a young age. His Dad got him started, setting him up with the local village side just outside of Cologne.
“He signed me up as a three-year-old in the village soccer team,” Rakovsky said. “The age gap was probably somewhere between five and ten, and I was there as a three-year-old. It was just, for me, running around and kicking the ball. It was a nice memory, on like a nice dirt field.”
By the age of five, he’d committed to his position.
“I knew that I liked to be a goalie,” Rakovsky said. “I liked to jump around, jump in the dirt. I didn’t want to run as much.”
While goalkeeping was his constant, location was not. First, his family took him to Prague, where he featured in the youth setups of both Slavia and Sparta. Then, at 17, he moved back to Germany with Schalke, before they sold him on to Nürnberg, with whom he’d make his professional debut.
Germany is where Rakovsky would meet his wife, a figure skater who hails from Scottsdale. However, he struggled to consistently get minutes with the first-team, often playing at more of a semi-pro level with the reserves.
That led him to take off for Belgium, where he played for Lierse.
“Everything went well, we were in second place then we went bankrupt,” Rakovsky said. “Basically, they didn’t pay us any salaries from January until June. There was a lot going on.
“After that, I married my wife and we decided to go to the U.S. I was still waiting for my green card, because American teams don’t really get a goalkeeper in a foreigner spot. So we decided to find a league that has the same rhythm as USL, and Finland was one of them.”
After some time in Finland with Lahti, Rakovsky left for Orange County. There, in his first season, his side won the league title.
“It was a little bit surprising,” he said. “I think we were a good team, but there were definitely better teams. At that point, Phoenix, I think they deserved to win the league, but it’s a playoff system and they lost on PKs against RGV who got the last playoff spot.”
That success was short-lived.
“Orange County never made a secret out of it, that we wanted to develop players,” Rakovsky said. “I think it was a bit too much. I think you cannot develop a lot of young players and win the championship. I think the ’21 season was a bit surprising, but if you look at the starting XI, there was not really a young player besides Ronaldo Damus, our striker who was just in a flow at that point.
“It was not a young team. All the young players were kind of on the bench, and not being disrespectful, but they were just filling in.”
In 2022, Orange County would instead finish at the bottom of the pile in the Western Conference.
“Last year, we just got rid of a lot of players and filled it with a lot of young players,” Rakovksy said. “Then, we had a bit of injury problems. You get into a negative flow, some PKs against you that make you think ‘how is that possible?’ You get offside goals against you. Everything that went for us in 2021 was kind of against us in 2022.
“On top of that, I don’t think we performed really well, and then there was a lot of side distractions with the stadium. So, it was just a season that was pretty disappointing.”
Rakovsky found himself dropped during that year, and when the offseason came around and his contract expired, “Orange County was pretty honest that they didn’t want me anymore, so we accepted that.”
Instead, he finally got the call to move to Arizona, playing for a team whose youth squads he’s previously coached for, and whose fans he’s long admired.
“Every time we played here, I had sometimes over 100 tickets for my friends and family who were cheering in the stands,” Rakovsky said. “I remember, first time playing here, Phoenix beat someone four, five goals the game before. I was warming up in front of the Bandidos, and someone screams to me ‘hey, goalie. If you concede less than five goals, I’ll buy you a beer.’
“The atmosphere is always good. The last two years it was a little bit sad that it was so outside of Phoenix. Now that it’s close to downtown Phoenix, we could expect a lot more people and with the style we want to play, I think it’s going to be really nice football to watch. I hope that a lot of people are going to come, and at this level, if you’re able to sell out that stadium, it gives you a huge advantage.”
Still, getting a contract at Rising is one thing. It’s another to actually win the starting job. Rakovsky will be up against Rocco Rios Novo, a much younger player who brings MLS experience to the table.
“The first few days, you want to get to know each other,” Rakovsky said. “Of course, you also know he’s your rival. It’s not like any other position where you can be the second best but are still going to play. For us, you play or you don’t play. There’s a little bit of ‘I hope I’m better than him,’ but the first few days, we connected really well. I think we are pushing each other, helping each other.
“Of course it can it can be disappointing if the other one plays, but at the end, it’s a team sport. If you want to play alone, you should go play tennis. You should just support your friend, your colleague in that moment, and try to show on the training field that you’re better than him.”
Regardless of who starts in net, Rakovsky’s view is clear. When it comes to 2023, Phoenix Rising should compete at a whole different level to their showing last year.
“I think we are a team who wants to fight for the championship,” he said. “Two years ago, Phoenix was probably the best team of West and East, and just a PK shootout knocks you out. It’s difficult to say, yes, we have to win the championship [because of the format].
“I think the goal is not ‘let’s get into the playoffs’. I think we have really experienced players. We have good players. We have players who played abroad, who played higher level. We need to be a team who everybody is scared of.”