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The 18 – Dia Gets Perfect Moment for Phoenix

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/01/19, 11:49AM EDT

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Late winner was one of the high points in dramatic Saturday night across Western Conference

If you’ve ever watched a perfect game or a no-hitter unfold in baseball, there are often moments when a key defensive play arrives that makes the feat of joining the exclusive club of pitchers to have delivered a complete game without allowing a hit feel like it’s about to become a reality.

It might not have felt like that immediately as Amadou Dia’s stoppage-time header hit the back of the net on Saturday night, sending Phoenix Rising FC to an eventual 4-2 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 at a sold-out Casino Arizona Field, but the morning after for me, this took on a similar feeling to seeing Alex Cintron’s remarkable sixth-inning defensive play that proved crucial to Randy Johnson’s perfect game for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004.

After all, Dia’s goal gave Rising FC its eighth consecutive victory and kept the side on a path to history. Just as Johnson was then three innings away from perfection, Phoenix is now three wins away from setting a USL Championship record as its pursuit of FC Cincinnati’s 10-game winning streak a season ago survived.

“Right now, the momentum is riding on our shoulders,” said Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz after the game, with his reaction to Dia’s game-winner one that will be hard to forget.

There’s no question now who the team to beat is in the Western Conference – and arguably the Championship as a whole – and with three winnable games against Rio Grande Valley FC, Austin Bold FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC coming in the next three weekends, the road to the record appears wide open.

Should the streak make history, Dia’s goal might end up being its signature moment.

Here’s this week’s 18

1. It was a remarkable game for Dia overall, with the left back having produced a tremendous individual finish to level the score after T2 had taken an early second-half lead that put the hosts on their heels for a short time. The moment that Dia’s snaking run was capped by a low finish through Portland goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic, order seemed to be restored. “I told him thank you, because I’ve been teasing him a long time about finishing those chances,” said Schantz.

2. There should be a little sympathy for Portland, which must have thought it had done enough to get away with a point after another display that showed why it is firmly in the playoff picture in the Western Conference again this season. After surrendering a lead in midweek at home to Reno 1868 FC, though, Dia’s late goal made it a tough week all around for Head Coach Cameron Knowles’ squad.

3. Reno is now Phoenix’s closest competitor at the top of the Western Conference as it completed a regular-season sweep of Donner Pass Derby rival Sacramento Republic FC in a game at Greater Nevada Field in which everything seemed to go right for the hosts and nothing did for the visitors. You know things are running your way when you get a goal like Carlos Rivas’ for 1868 FC, where his first touch somehow comes off his chin and sets up perfectly for a second touch that was as silky as it gets.

4. For Sacramento, on the other hand, nothing seemed to go right. Cameron Iwasa certainly had a game he’ll be looking to forget after squandering a big first-half opportunity to level the score after Raul Mendiola had put 1868 FC ahead minutes earlier, and then seeing a tame penalty kick effort saved by Reno goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski early in the second half. If either of those chances, or Mitchell Taintor’s near-post header that was brilliantly saved by Marcinkowski early in the second half, finds the back of the net then it would have been game on. Instead, Sacramento’s three-game winning streak is over and its chance to cut into top four has been set back.

5. Phoenix and Reno’s victories were both big, but you could make an argument that no-one made a bigger statement on Saturday night in the Western Conference than Fresno FC. Hosting El Paso Locomotive FC in the other marquee contest, the Foxes racked up a 3-0 victory that saw them take advantage of some uncharacteristically disastrous decision-making in its own half by Locomotive FC that led to two of the three goals as they pulled away for victory.

6. Maybe the biggest key to the Foxes’ win, though, was the early-game performance by goalkeeper C.J. Cochran, who shut down two big El Paso chances in a one-on-one with Omar Salgado and a diving save to keep out a beautifully struck finish by Daniel Navarro. With Fresno now in third place in the Western Conference, the side knew how important this game was going to be going in and was thrilled to emerge with all three points.

7. “It's a six-point game. We've taken points off them,” said Foxes Head Coach Adam Smith. “We get the points and we have another six-point game on Wednesday [against Sacramento Republic FC], it sets us up great for Wednesday. So, I am absolutely delighted. We just have to keep on rolling. The players deserved to get the win tonight, it’s nice to get three goals and give the fans something to cheer about.”

8. With Ottawa Fury FC having come off a hard-fought midweek win before their trip to Al Lang Stadium to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday night, there was always a chance its energy was going to drop in the Florida heat. That made Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins’ game-plan to use Malik Johnson as a second-half substitute a perfect decision that resulted in a major payoff in the closing stages.

9. After he came on, the young Canadian was a menace to Ottawa’s defense, a buzz going around the stadium whenever he got on the ball, and while he didn’t ultimately get the assist on Sebastian Guenzatti’s stoppage-time winner, his initial play to get to byline and cut back a near-post cross was crucial to the result.

10. “If I had any negatives of the first half of the season, it would be that off the bench when we need a goal, we’ve just not quite had that spark,” said Collins. “We’ve had people come on and do great jobs at seeing out games and doing their roles, but at home, we’ve just never had a spark off the bench. I had so many options tonight. There’s other boys I could have brought on that probably would have done something, but having said that, Lucky [Mkosana], [Kwadwo] Poku and Malik, their impact off the bench won us the game.”

11. Picking up an assist in his first game back in a Rowdies uniform was a good feeling for Mkosana as the early reviews for both he and now-Louisville City FC forward Antoine Hoppenot came back positively. Hoppenot came on with 13 minutes to go as LouCity looked for a winner on the road against Indy Eleven after Paolo DelPiccolo’s brilliant free kick had leveled things 10 minutes into the second half, and almost provided the chance Louisville needed with a clever lay-off that set up Luke Spencer for a low shot that was saved.

12. In the end, a draw felt like a fair result in the first LIPAFC contest of the season as Indy had the better of the opening half and Louisville the better of the second. For the Eleven, who are now on a 10-game undefeated streak as they enter a week off, it was a satisfactory end to a good sequence of games. “It’s a good week for us. We picked up seven points out of nine. The third game of the week is always the most challenging in terms of the energy levels,” said Indy Head Coach Martin Rennie. “Both teams really pressed hard and worked hard, and the passing and movement was good from both sides. I thought both teams put everything into it. It was an exciting game for everyone here.”

13. The only team likely more disappointed than Fury FC themselves about the Rowdies’ late game-winner would have been North Carolina FC, which took a 1-0 win against Nashville SC and spoiled the return of Daniel Rios to his old stomping grounds with another solid home performance. After NSC’s weather travails on Wednesday night left them with no payoff for a good first half against the New York Red Bulls II, the visitors came out flat against North Carolina, which took advantage with a nicely taken goal by Ben Speas, who was highly influential throughout.

14. Nashville created plenty of chances in a good second-half response in search of a draw, but its finishing didn’t test NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis as much as it might have. “I felt like we had two or three good chances but the overall picture of that second half was not hitting the target,” said NSC Head Coach Gary Smith. “There was a wonderful opportunity within a minute or two of the restart, when Cameron Lancaster swiveled into a good spot. But other than the free kicks, we didn’t make the goalkeeper work and I can honestly say that there was too much of a wasteful nature of our play in front of goal today which is uncharacteristic.” 

15. It might be something, it might be nothing, but NSC is now 1-4-4 this season against teams in the playoff positions in the Eastern Conference. Their visit to Louisville City FC – and Cameron Lancaster’s return to Slugger Field – next Saturday is going to be a must-see and a potential statement game for the visitors.

16. You ever experience déjà vu? Las Vegas Lights FC fans might have on Saturday night as for a second consecutive year OKC Energy FC goalkeeper Cody Laurendi made the saves and forward Deshorn Brown provided the goal as the visitors took a 1-0 win at Cashman Field. Laurendi wasn’t nearly as busy as he was in Energy FC’s visit last season when his 11-save performance stole the show, but this time around the Puerto Rico international put up three key stops that allowed Brown to grab all three points as his ninth goal of the season arrived with a minute to go to end Lights FC’s home undefeated streak in the league.

17. Can you tell me who said this? “This league has so much talent. It’s going to be hard to sit on 1-0 games all the time.” If you said Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley, claim your prize from the customer service desk. It’s a sign of how far the league has come that Lilley – known in the past for winning with rock-solid defense and somewhat limited attack – has moved with the progressions the league has made and now has a team that can still defend well but has far more attacking flair than his teams earlier this decade. With a 4-1 win against Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday night, the Hounds have now scored 12 goals over three consecutive victories and should have plenty of people looking over their shoulders in the Eastern Conference standings.

18. Picture this: You’ve just signed your first professional contract out of your club’s Academy, and with 30 minutes to go your head coach calls you off the bench to go and try and change the direction of a scoreless game. You then do this with effectively your first proper action of the game.

It doesn’t get much better than that, honestly, and congratulations to Christian Sorto on his two-goal debut that helped United to a 2-1 win against ATL UTD 2. If this is the direction that Loudoun is heading under new Head Coach Ryan Martin, I’m a fan.

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