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The 18 – Phoenix Flexes Attacking Prowess

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/22/19, 10:34AM EDT

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Sterling second half equaled win-streak record, but Reno, Fresno remain hot on heels

PHOENIX – A weekend ago, we saw what could happen when Phoenix Rising FC wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders as it eked out a narrow victory against Rio Grande Valley FC.

Unfortunately for Austin Bold FC, it was only a temporary glitch.

A five-goal second half display saw Phoenix move into a tie for the most consecutive victories in the Championship’s history as it reeled off a 6-0 win with what was about as impressive a 45 minutes as the league has seen in quite a while. Rising FC’s five-goal second half was the ninth such occurrence in the league’s history, surpassed only by Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s six-goal performance in the memorable “Miracle on the Mon” victory against Penn FC in 2015.

After the narrow win against the Toros, while also facing a side that entered the weekend itself in the top four, the physicality of Bold FC seemed to bring an added focus to Rising FC’s sharpness on the ball as it broke into attack.

“It’s very easy in these situations to kind of slip up and get complacent, but we push each other every day and we go about our business well,” said midfielder James Musa, whose goal nine minutes into the second half opened the floodgates. “When it’s one, we want two, when it’s two, we want three, when it’s three, we want four, and we just keep pushing, pushing, pushing. It starts with the coaches and then the players push each other every day.”

As well as Phoenix has played in matching FC Cincinnati’s record of a season ago, however, bigger-picture records are now starting to come into view. Rising FC’s +35 goal differential is only five short of the New York Red Bulls II’s mark of +40 set three seasons ago, while Reno 1868 FC’s mark of 75 regular-season goals set two seasons ago could also be in play.

On the agenda for now, though, is a visit to Tulsa Roughnecks FC next Saturday night with a chance to make history.

“We just want to take every game, game by game, so now we focus on the next one, Tulsa, to make it 11 to beat the record,” said Musa. “And I can assure you that we’ll be flying. We’ll be going out there, we’re going for blood.”

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. As pleased as he was with his side’s performance, Phoenix Head Coach Rick Schantz took issue with Austin’s physicality as the game progressed, which included a red card for Bold FC’s Edson Braafheid for what he termed a ridiculous challenge on Joey Calistri.

2. “The red card was ridiculous,” said Schantz. “And the one on Adam Jahn from behind on the back of his knee, he said play on, he got the ball. I’m really proud of our team. There was so much pressure on the players today. Twelve wins on $1 Beer Night, 10 straight in the league. What good football. We scored some fantastic goals. They were positive, but the league deserves a little bit better right now.”  

3. As impressive as Phoenix’s run has been, running it a close second has been the performances of Reno 1868 FC and Fresno FC, who have each compiled five-game winning streaks of their own to stay within touch of the Western Conference leader. The Foxes picked up another home win against the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night thanks in part to a stunning finish by Arun Basuljevic which earned a 2-1 victory.

4. The Foxes are now only two points off matching their 2018 points total with 15 games to go in the season, while Saturday’s 10th victory saw it surpass last year’s mark. With only two defeats on the campaign, Fresno is doing a stellar job of turning results that last year would have ended up as defeats into draws, while converting draws into victories. With the second-best defensive record in the Western Conference – 19 goals conceded in 19 games – it’s not a question anymore of whether the Foxes will reach the postseason but how deep they’ll go once they get there.

5. 1868 FC, meanwhile, has played a game more than Rising FC but is only three points back in the standings after its 2-1 victory on the road against the LA Galaxy II. It was a result the visitors had to work hard to earn – Los Dos won the majority of the game’s duels, hit the post twice and recorded almost twice as many scoring chances as their visitors (15-8) – but while Reno might have ridden its good fortune a little bit it’s still well-positioned to challenge Phoenix.

6. The biggest reason Reno and Fresno’s runs are both so significant is that both will face Phoenix over the final weeks of the regular season. 1868 FC will get the first crack at Rising FC on August 16 and could be in good position to challenge with its four games prior to that meeting all coming against sides currently sitting below the playoff line in the West, starting with Orange County SC on Wednesday afternoon. And whether Phoenix’s winning streak has come to an end or not by that contest, Reno will have a significant streak to contend with: August 16 is the next Friday night home game for Rising FC, which almost certainly means Phoenix’s 12-0-0 record on $1 Beer Night will be on the line.

7. Rising FC might be the hottest team in the league right now, but the team with the most points? That’s still the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who got a full club effort to first get their game against Saint Louis FC played on Saturday night and then put in a statement performance with a 4-1 victory that saw Sebastian Guenzatti score twice alongside finishes by Leo Fernandes and Caleb Richards.

8. As impressive as the performance on the field was, the MVPs of the night were probably the Rowdies ground staff, whose preparation that included tarps covering the field while a torrential storm blew through St. Petersburg on Saturday night helped allow the game to be played. Once the rain started to slow 90 minutes before the rescheduled kickoff, an ideal playing surface was revealed, quite the impressive job given the standing water in the streets surrounding the stadium.

9. “The ground staff did an unbelievable job,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “Honestly, these players are out in the field giving the staff something to be proud of, but they will be the first to admit we’ve got fantastic people behind the scenes, and thankfully for the first time in my period here they’re getting to reap the benefits in terms of the team on the field. It was a whole club effort today to get the game on, and then to go and put the performance on.”

10. While they were taking victory, the Rowdies also got a welcome favor from one of their former players as Brandon Allen came back to haunt another of his former clubs with his first two goals for Memphis 901 FC that earned the hosts a 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls II at AutoZone Park. The result saw the gap between the Rowdies and the Red Bulls II rise to five points, putting a dent in New York’s hopes of pulling level at the top of the Eastern Conference when it hosts the Rowdies at MSU Soccer Park this Friday night. The Red Bulls II are 2-0-0 all-time at home against the Rowdies, scoring nine goals across those two victories. With the hosts looking to close the gap at the top it’s going to make for a fascinating start to next weekend’s action.

11. The most remarkable – or depending on your perspective, most frustrating – performance of the weekend arrived at Slugger Field, where Bethlehem Steel FC finally earned its first road victory against Louisville City FC thanks to a first-half goal by Walter Cortes. That wasn’t the story of the game, however, as Steel FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero recorded a 12-save shutout to keep the hosts at bay in a dazzling performance between the sticks.

12. Romero’s feat was one for the record books as LouCity became the first team in league history to record 12 shots on goal in a game while being held scoreless, while also recording the second-highest total of overall shots in a game with 36. The record for most shots in a single game? Well, that side also got shut out as well when Sacramento Republic FC recorded 37 shots against San Antonio FC on June 16, 2018 but saw Diego Restrepo record a nine-save shutout as SAFC took a 1-0 win at Toyota Field.

13. LouCity fans might have felt a sense of déjà vu in watching Romero’s performance, as it almost mirrored another remarkable goalkeeping display by a visiting ‘keeper to Slugger Field from two seasons ago. Back then it was Angelo Cavalluzzo who recorded an 11-save shutout to earn Toronto FC II a 0-0 draw on the road on April 29, 2017. His mark was equaled a season ago by Cody Laurendi, whose 11-save shutout allowed OKC Energy FC to defeat Las Vegas Lights FC 1-0 on September 29, 2018, but now Romero stands alone at the top of that particular ranking.

Editor’s Note: Following publication, a shot on goal by Louisville and save by Romero were both removed from the game’s official statistics by Opta, leaving Romero tied with Cavalluzzo and Laurendi for the most saves in a shutout in the Championship’s history.

14. Bethlehem’s road win was a welcome boost to its playoff chances after consecutive defeats in its prior two outings. Another side that picked up a crucial road win? The Charleston Battery, who rallied to win 3-2 after going behind to Hartford Athletic in the second half at Dillon Stadium with two goals in two minutes by Ataulla Guerra and Dante Marini. The Battery haven’t had the level of consistency in producing results of seasons past – and haven’t exactly been helped recently by Mother Nature – but wins like this will pave the way to another playoff berth in October.

15. If there’s one player Hartford might be glad not to face again this season, it’s Marini. His goal – which came nine minutes after being brought on as a substitute – was his second game-winner against the Athletic this season among three goals total. “I think that over the course of my career I’ve really taken on the role of being that guy who can come in and give the team a spark,” said Marini. “I relish the opportunities to come in a do whatever the team needs from me and it feels great. We spoke as a team about going out and winning games, instead of settling for draws, and it feels unbelievable to go out and help our team accomplish that.”

16. When Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was putting together a fine regular season a few years ago, the side was led by a dynamic goal-scoring midfielder in Rob Vincent that seemed to have a knack for finding the key goal at the key moment. It might be a little too soon to compare current Hounds midfielder and Pittsburgh native Robbie Mertz to his illustrious forbear, but with the rookie now tied for the team-lead with five goals this season after his winner in a 1-0 win against North Carolina FC on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium there’s more than a passing resemblance.

17. Mertz has taken some time to find his way into Head Coach Bob Lilley’s lineup, but now he’s starting to get regular action and it’s paying dividends for the side overall. All of Mertz’s goals have come since the start of June, which has given the Hounds another valuable attacking weapon as they look to make a move up the Eastern Conference and avoid the play-in round of the postseason.

18. For all the challenges lightning delays can bring a side, the Hounds thought they benefited when a lightning strike pulled the teams from the field with eight minutes to go and the hosts hanging to a one-goal lead. “It served us well tonight, I don’t know if we get to the end line without a break,” Lilley said. “We weren’t organized, they were playing through us pretty easily for a good portion of the second half. They brought their subs on and they played us up top. I knew they would when I saw the starting lineup, but obviously, it helped to get into the locker room and communicate clear instructions.” 

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