The cyclically reborn phoenix bird is one of the best known stories of Greek mythology. Phoenix famously rises from the ashes of its predecessor, and references from Pope Clement 1, Dante and William Shakespeare have left the tale enshrined in European culture today. Sport, and particularly association football, has borrowed the term in recent times to describe teams who spring-up upon the death of another club.
Phoenix clubs are technically new teams but in essence they are the same team as the one that has folded, typically for financial reasons. Phoenix clubs will often share very similar names to their predecessors, they will tend to have a similar badge, retain much of the former clubs support and often move into the same stadium. The term has also been used to describe protest clubs like FC United of Manchester, who were formed as an alternative club for Manchester United fans following the unpopular arrival of Malcolm Glazer. Strictly speaking, FC United of Manchester aren’t a phoenix club, and only bonafide phoenix clubs will be considered for this seven. There are also cases of clubs like Fiorentina, Napoli and Rangers who, following severe financial problems, were declared bankrupt and had to re-apply to play at a lower level as a new corporate entity. However, most footballing authorities consider those three to still be the same clubs over the years, so again I won’t be including them in this seven.
I created a shortlist of 18 of the best known and best ranked phoenix clubs in world football when researching for this video, and picking out who are the seven ‘best’ wasn’t easy. The logic I have used, is in an 18 team league of those clubs that I picked out, how do I think the top seven of that division would look at the end of a season? You may disagree with my rankings, so I will list some honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are 7 of the best phoenix clubs in world football:
7. Wellington Phoenix
Wellington Phoenix are, in one respect at least, the ultimate phoenix club. Not in the sense that they are the best, evidently I think they are the seventh best, but purely down to the fact that they actually decided to put the word phoenix in their name in honour of their status as a phoenix club. New Zealand have been represented in the top flight of Australian soccer since 1999, when Auckland-based Football Kingz FC joined the Australian National Soccer League. They were replaced by New Zealand Knights in 2004, who were also based in Auckland, but the Knights were dissolved in 2007.
Following two Auckland-based franchises, property developer Terry Serepisos put up the cash to ensure New Zealand would retain representation in the A-League, but that this time the team would be based in the countries capital Wellington. The public proposed 250 potential new names, six of which were shortlisted, before ‘Wellington Phoenix’ was crowned as the winner. Serepisos said of the clubs names, “It symbolises the fresh start, the rising from the ashes, and the incredible Wellington support that has come out.”
Since their founding 12 years ago, the Nix have tended to finish in the bottom half of the A-League table. Their highest finish was fourth place, achieved on three separate occasions. Right now, Wellington Phoenix are still coming to terms with the loss of star-man Roy Krishna to the Indian Super League. They have New Zealand internationals like Stefan Marinovic, Tim Payne and Alex Rufer in their current squad, along with former Newcastle regular Steven Taylor and ex-Celtic striker Gary Hooper, and I think they deserve seventh place in this seven.
Royal Excel Mouscron, more commonly referred to simply as Mouscron, or even just REM, are the phoenix club of former Belgian Cup finalists R.E. Mouscron. Founded in 1964 in a merger of two Mouscron based sides, R.E. Mouscron twice competed in the UEFA Cup, before their financial burdens became too great to bare in 2009. Manchester City reportedly came close to rescuing the club for £3 million, in exchange for using them as a feeder club, but no such deal was ever struck.
Instead, the city of Mouscron sought to merge with another existing local club, doing so successfully as a new phoenix club was born in March 2010. Mouscron had to start life in the fourth tier of Belgian football, but they made a pretty rapid ascent through the divisions. They won three promotions in their first four seasons back in the Belgian game, returning to the top flight in 2014.
Following a few seasons fighting relegation, Mouscron look more like a mid-table side now, and they have a pretty eclectic squad. There are a whopping seventeen different nationalities represented in the current Mouscron squad, which can’t be far off a record. Among them is Man City loanee and Spanish youth international Aleix Garcia and former £18 million Stoke City flop – and Austrian international – Kevin Wimmer, who is on-loan from the Potters.
5. Vancouver Whitecaps
The MLS is a real haven of phoenix clubs, and the first – but not the last – from the division to make this seven is Vancouver Whitecaps. The current club, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, are actually the third side to carry the Vancouver Whitecaps name, so we’ll give you a little run down on their backstory. The original Vancouver Whitecaps were founded in December 1973 and joined the North American Soccer League in 1974. They were actually one of the big success stories of the NASL, attracting stars like Ruud Krol, Alan Ball and Bruce Grobelaar, getting regular 32,000 sellout crowds, and winning an NASL championship in 1979.
The demise of the NASL saw them fold in 1984, nonetheless, and a new Vancouver side named the Vancouver 86ers arose in 1986. They renamed to become the Vancouver Whitecaps, and competed in the de facto top flight and de jurno second tier of US and Canadian soccer up until 2010. In 2009, the Whitecaps were granted permission to become the latest MLS expansion side for the 2011 season, meaning the 1986 founded Whitecaps were dissolved.
The new MLS franchise chose to retain the Whitecaps name, and thus, the third Vancouver Whitecaps and the second phoenix club in the city was born. Since expansion, the Caps haven’t tended to be one of the major forces in the MLS. They did enjoy an excellent 2015 season, finishing second in their conference, third overall and winning a Canadian Championship. Their current squad contains five current Canadian internationals, as well as former Colombian international Fredy Montero.
4. NK Olimpija Ljubljana
One of very few phoenix clubs to have won top flight league titles since their formation, NK Olimpija Ljubljana are the biggest club in Slovenia’s capital city. The original club, NK Olimpija Ljubljana, and yes, that is exactly the same name, were formed in 1945. Their home ground, the Bezigrad Stadium, recently featured in my video on 7 abandoned football stadiums, and the original Olimpija won four league titles and four Slovenian Cups, almost all in the 1990’s.
The club faced mounting debts in 2004 though, losing most of their sponsors and being forced to sell almost their entire squad. Debts equivalent to around €3 million caused the club to declare bankruptcy, and they ceased all operations in 2005. Unusually among phoenix clubs, the new Olimpija were actually founded before the old one had fully folded. May 2005 marked the end for the original Olimpjia, whilst the new club was founded in March 2005 under the name NK Bezigrad.
In their third season they renamed to NK Olimpija Bezigrad, and soon after they reverted fully to ‘NK Olimpija Ljubljana’. The phoenix club claims the rights to Oljpija’s entire history and list of honours, but the Slovenian football association considers the new club a wholly new entity. Since reforming 14 years ago in Slovenia’s fifth division, Olimpija have won four promotions, two top flight league titles and two Slovenian Cups.
3. San Jose Earthquakes
When you go to the current San Jose Earthquakes Wikipedia page, it somewhat amusingly gives the option of being redirected at the top of the page to either the original San Jose Earthquakes, or to a list of actual earthquakes that have taken place in California. I quite like the idea of a passionate amateur seismologist who furiously added that link in there after repeatedly finding himself reading about a soccer team he or she had no interest in.
We do have an interest in the San Jose Earthquakes though, who are the phoenix club of the original Earthquakes who were founded in 1974. San Jose competed in the NASL from 1974 to 1984, and the WSA from 1985 to 1988, when the club was dissolved. In 1989, the San Jose Hawks – or San Francisco Bay Blackhawks – came into existence, before their former owner Daniel Van Voorhis successfully led a bid for a newly-formed San Jose Earthquakes to be one of the inaugural MLS expansion franchises.
San Jose actually played in the first ever MLS game, and also won the first ever MLS game, beating DC United. They have since gone on to win the MLS’ Western Conference three times, and they have won the MLS Cup twice. The original Earthquakes are probably best known for having George Best on their books between 1980 and 1981, whilst former USMNT star Chris Wondolowski is the phoenix clubs all time record goal scorer and appearance holder.
2. Portland Timbers
Phoenix clubs are in the DNA of Portland Timbers. The current club, who were founded in 2009, are the fourth different soccer team bearing the Portland Timbers name. The first, back in the 1970’s and 80’s, competed in the NASL and attracted the likes of Clyde Best and Peter Withe. The second, founded in 1985, were a semi-professional outfit who competed in the WSA and the APSL, before folding in 1990. The third, founded in 2001, competed in various second tiers up until 2009.
And so that brings us to the fourth, and current, Portland Timbers side, who were founded in 2009 when the city of Portland was awarded an expansion side for Major League Soccer. In their relatively short history, the latest Timbers side have fared pretty well. They have topped the Western Conference twice, in 2013 and 2017, they won the MLS Cup in 2015, and they were runners-up to Atlanta United in the MLS Cup final in 2018.
Portland Timbers dropped down to sixth place in the Western Conference this season, going out in the first round of the MLS Cup play-offs. All three of the Timbers designated players are Argentinians, most notably Diego Valeri, who is a four-time MLS All-Star and is among the finest players in the history of the division.
0. Honourable Mentions
The term phoenix club is most commonly heard in England, yet not a single English club made this seven. That is because most compete in the depths of the Football League or in the non-league game, but there are some who certainly deserve honourable mentions. The most notable would have to be AFC Wimbledon and Accrington Stanley, both of whom compete in League One, the third tier of English football. Other English sides I ought to mention include the likes of Newport County, Aldershot Town and Halifax Town.
Elsewhere, we almost had a second entrant from Belgium, and that would have been Waasland-Beveren. Founded in 2010 as KSK Beveren’s phoenix club, Waasland-Beveren have competed in the top flight of Belgian football since 2013. Brazilan duo Clube Parana and Gremio Novorizontino very nearly featured, as did top flight Serbian side FK Spartak Subotica, who became a phoenix club for ZAK Subotica way back in 1945. Other phoenix clubs who made my shortlist include Bulgarian outfit SFC Etar and Northern Irish side Ballymena United. That’s it for my honourable mentions, please leave your own suggestions in the comments, but here is my top spot…
1. Seattle Sounders
Well, I warned you that the MLS was very phoenix club-heavy, and the top three in this seven all compete in the top flight of US soccer. The Seattle Sounders have to come out on top as the best of the lot right now, having been runners-up in the Western Conference this season, and they will face Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup semi-finals probably on the evening that this video comes out, or on the next day UK time.
The current Sounders are the third of their kind, the first – naturally – having formed in 1974 to play in the NASL, before folding when the division collapsed. The original Sounders had some familiar faces to those familiar with the English game in the 1970’s, with the likes of Peter Ward, Mike England and Alan Hudson having starred for the club. Following their demise in 1983, the Sounders name was reborn in 1994, this time competing in the USL First Division.
The city of Seattle was awarded an expansion team in 2007, and entered Major League Soccer for the first time in 2009. The Seattle Sounders founded in 1994 ceased to exist in 2008, as the new franchise took shape. The Sounders are celebrating a decade in the MLS this season, and that decade includes one first-placed finish, one MLS Cup and four US Open Cups. For a long time, Seattle Sounders were the best supported side in the MLS, up until Atlanta United’s arrival in 2017. They are still by far the second best supported team in the league.