By the end of tonight, we’ll know which two teams will square off in the 2020 USL Championship Final next Sunday night on ESPN. And one of the two teams looking to make its return to the Final is looking to build on one of the more notable performances in the Championship Playoffs’ history. Here’s your Morning Tea for Saturday.
What Phoenix Rising FC accomplished last Saturday night was almost historic.
In fact, if not for one of the legendary moments in the Championship’s history, it would have been unprecedented.
Phoenix became only the second team to rally from a two-goal deficit to advance in a USL Championship Playoffs game in the league’s history as it overcame Reno 1868 FC to reach its second Western Conference Final, and while it might not have had the storyline or climax that Sacramento Republic FC’s “Miracle at Bonney” and Rodrigo Lopez did six years ago, it certainly showed the mettle side has brought this postseason.
“The grit and determination of this team far outweighs our ability to play pretty, attacking football in 2019,” Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz told the Arizona Republic’s Lorenzino Estrada this week. “This is the playoffs. We have to be mature and humble and recognize we’re playing very, very good teams. This is what you need to do to win championships. It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
Schantz will return to the sideline this week following his reinstatement from administrative leave on Wednesday, but he had praise for both goalkeeper Zac Lubin and his assistant Blair Gavin, who stepped into the Interim Head Coaching role in his absence. The side has won all three contests in Schantz’s absence, and he believes Gavin has played an important role in helping the side
“He was fantastic,” Schantz said of his assistant to Estrada. “When you're in this position the one thing I said to Blair is, ‘It has to be you. You have to do what Blair Gavin would do.’ Because if you're pretending to be someone else the players will know right away. Blair is extremely intelligent, extremely analytical, knows the game very well and played at a high level. The players respect him for that.”
Phoenix will face another side it saw in the regular season on Saturday night when El Paso Locomotive FC visits Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+) for its second consecutive trip to the Western Conference Final. Rising FC won 3-1 in their initial encounter on August 1 – also in Arizona – but the game was marked by an onslaught of El Paso pressure that saw the visitors record 17 second-half shots only to be kept at arm’s length.
Since them, El Paso has gone on a 13-game undefeated streak and has burnished its credentials as a serious contender for the title as well.
“[El Paso Head Coach] Mark Lowery is one of the best coaches in the league,” Schantz told Estrada. “They have experienced players. They’re going to be a tough team to beat. Last time they were here they showed they can play extremely well against us. We got a few opportunities that game and took advantage, but I said it then, I knew we would see them again in the playoffs.”
If history is on Rising FC’s side, however, last week’s win might be the omen Phoenix’s fans can view with hope for what might arrive over the next two weekends.
- El Paso Locomotive FC has had to deal with injuries to some key players and rises and dips in form from others, but the main constant for the side has been Dylan Mares. KTSM’s Colin Deaver spoke with the playmaker, who has recorded five goals and five assists going into Saturday’s contest with Phoenix Rising FC.
- Louisville City FC is undefeated in its last 13 games, and has won eight in a row going into Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but Head Coach John Hackworth believes the visitors will give the three-time defending Eastern Conference title-winners their biggest test yet as they meet at Lynn Family Stadium.
- El Paso Locomotive FC’s Memo Diaz had a memorable Saturday night, writes the El Paso Times’ Bret Bloomquist, first coming on to help his side earn a place in the Western Conference Final of the Championship Playoffs and then shortly after the game proposing to now-fiancee India Castillo.
- After trading squads midway through the 2019 season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Lucky Mkosana and Louisville City FC’s Antoine Hoppenot have become key players for their new clubs, including in the postseason over the past two seasons.
- Oakland Roots SC has developed a reputation as one of the most civic-minded sporting organizations in North America. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Alan Charazo took a look behind the scenes and spoke with the club’s Chief Purpose Officer Mike Geddes to find out what makes the new arrival to the USL Championship tick.
- Former Charleston Battery midfielder Brian Anunga is has begun to make his mark for Nashville SC in Major League Soccer after his transfer last offseason, with his ball-winning skills impressing his more experienced teammates. “I'm not being funny when I say Brian is one of the top two, or top three, pure ball-winners that I've ever played with in my entire career,” veteran Dax McCarty told The Tennessean’s Drake Hills. “That means when midfielders go in for duels, when midfielders go in for 50-50 tackles, I would say 95 percent of the time, Brian Anunga is going to come out on top.”
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC hasn’t managed to fulfill its title aspirations yet, but Pitt News columnist Alexander Ganias writes have a chance to become the City’s champion as their on-field play earns a bigger spotlight in the Steel City’s sporting scene.