RENO, Nev. – Phoenix Rising FC goalkeeper Zac Lubin went from potential goat to penalty shootout hero as the visitors took a 5-4 victory against Reno 1868 FC after the sides had played to a 2-2 draw through regulation and extra time in the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs at Greater Nevada Field on Saturday night.
After a critical early error had gifted 1868 FC the lead, only for Phoenix to rally behind goals from Kevon Lambert and Solomon Asante after falling two goals behind, Lubin denied Reno’s Aidan Apodaca in the fifth round of the shootout for the lone save for either side, allowing Rufat Dadashov to convert with Phoenix’s fifth round shot and earn a place in the Western Conference Final.
Reno had kept the pressure on Phoenix throughout in the shootout as its four shooters had all made their attempts from the spot. Rising FC was able to match in response each time, however, as Darnell King’s shot low to the left corner made it even after four rounds. Lubin then produced an outstanding save on Apodaca’s shot to the left corner, getting both hands to the shot and turning it wide before Dadashov sent his side through.
Looking to reach the Western Conference Final for the first time, Reno had gotten out to a perfect start as Lubin made a costly error. After receiving a pass back from one of his defenders as the visitors tried to build out of the back, Lubin had his pass picked off by Hertzog inside the penalty area, and the veteran forward deposited a simple finish into the left corner of the net.
The teams exchanged half-chances following the opening goal as Phoenix looked to respond, but the next good opportunity also fell to the hosts as Tucker Bone found space at the top-right edge of the penalty area and fired a low shot that Lubin saved before his defense cleared. Sergio Rivas also forced a save from Lubin with a long-range strike seven minutes before halftime as the goalkeeper palmed the ball up before claiming on the second attempt.
A minute later, Foster Langsdorf found the net for the hosts only for the offside flag to be raised as he tucked away Hertzog’s through-ball, but in the 40th minute Reno struck again as a cross from the left by Christiano Francois was headed high into the air by a Phoenix defender and Kevin Partida controlled inside the penalty area between two defenders and fired a low shot home into the left corner of the net to make it a two-goal game.
Phoenix almost found a response two minutes later as Santi Moar’s shot from the left side of the penalty area was turned away by Reno goalkeeper Ben Beaury, but in first-half stoppage time the visitors got on the board. Midfielder Sam Stanton made a driving run into the penalty area and while his effort clipped the angle of a Reno defender it fell perfectly for Lambert to shoot low into the net.
1868 FC started the second half back on the front foot and went close to restoring its two-goal lead four minutes after the break as a good through-ball by Bone released Langsdorf in onside, but Lubin came off his line quickly to smother the chance. Hertzog almost forced another critical error from Lubin, too, just past the hour-mark as he charged down a clearance that was retrieved by Langsdorf in the left side of the penalty area, but Hertzog’s header off the cross that followed was gathered by the Rising FC goalkeeper.
Bone also went close for Reno as he skipped past his marker in the 69th minute but couldn’t quite lift his finish over Lubin to add to 1868 FC’s lead. That proved crucial two minutes later as Asante was played into the right side of the penalty area by Stanton and fired home a low shot into the near corner that leveled the score.
The goal gave Phoenix momentum and as the second half wore on the visitors looked the more likely to find a winner. Dadashov headed over the crossbar from eight yards off a good ball by Corey Whelan in the 73rd minute, then with five minutes to go Darnell King headed wide of the left post off a free kick by Asante. Moar then had a big opportunity to settle things in stoppage time but skied his finish from close to the penalty area after Lambert had drawn Beaury off his line to challenge him near the top-right edge of the six-yard area.
Extra time didn’t provide quite the same roller coaster as regulation as Reno regained its composure and almost grabbed the lead eight minutes into the extra session as substitute Aidan Apodaca chased down a long pass upfield down the left and forced a near-post save by Lubin as he cut into the penalty area. The hosts looked the more energetic late on as the final push for a goal to decide the game arrived, but in the shootout Phoenix held its nerve as Lubin came up with decisive stop.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Rufat Dadashov, Phoenix Rising FC – Dadashov had three shots and four key passes through the 120 minutes and was clinical from the spot to send Rising FC through to the Western Conference Final.