PHOENIX – After claiming victory in a second consecutive penalty shootout, Phoenix Rising FC earned its second Western Conference Title in three years as it defeated El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday night 4-2 from the spot after the sides had played to a 1-1 draw after regulation and extra time.
Here are three takeaways from a contest that saw the Phoenix book a trip to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies next Sunday night in the USL Championship Final.
1. BIG SAVE ZAC: Having a hot goalkeeper can carry you an awful long way in a single-elimination tournament. On Saturday night, Zac Lubin was just that for Phoenix Rising FC as he posted five saves in regulation and another key shootout save to send his side through to its second USL Championship Final. It wasn’t about the number of saves, though, it was more about the timing and relevance that made Lubin’s performance impressive. Keeping the game scoreless in the 15th minute as he came out to deny Josue Aaron Gomez on a big opportunity for the visitors to grab the lead started it all off, and there were others as well throughout the second half as El Paso produced greater incisiveness in the final third in comparison to its first-half performance. The save everyone might remember from this night will be his denial of Nick Ross in the penalty shootout, but overall Lubin has recorded 14 saves on 17 opposing shots on goal this postseason – a save percentage of 82.4 percent.
2. TURNING THE TIDE: There were some serious echoes to the first meeting this season between the two sides in this rematch, especially in the way El Paso’s adjustments at halftime paid off handsomely when it came to their attacking endeavors. Locomotive FC created the far better chances throughout the second half as it put five shots on target and a sixth off the crossbar as Dylan Mares almost ended the game in stoppage time. The visitors could easily have carried that momentum into extra time, but Phoenix dug in and managed to wrest control away as the hosts produced the better chances in the additional 30 minutes. By the end, El Paso’s tanks looked empty as its players launched clearances upfield, while Phoenix seemed back in control and ready for what was next. Rising FC has now gone 9 of 9 from the penalty spot in two shootouts this postseason, adding to its record of 5 of 5 in the regular season.
3. MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: If you read our look ahead to why each of the remaining four Championship Final contenders would – or wouldn’t – claim the title next weekend, for Locomotive FC it was the side’s below-average finishing numbers that were cause for concern. And as stellar as Lubin’s play proved over the 120 minutes on Saturday night, Locomotive FC will likely look back on the chances it was unable to take – particularly during the second half – that were the cause of its demise at this stage for a second consecutive year. El Paso once again had enough chances – it recorded 11 Chances Created and one Big Chance Created across the 120 minutes – but a combination of Lubin and imprecise finishing cost the visitors dearly. Add in the league-leading 12th instance of hitting the woodwork this season by Dylan Mares, and it just wasn’t El Paso night in front of goal, again.