San Diego Loyal SC's Jack Blake and Charlie Adams celebrate Blake's second goal of the game that earned the hosts a 2-1 victory against Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night at Torero Stadium. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
SAN DIEGO – By most measures – both old-school and modern – the numbers were not in San Diego Loyal SC’s favor on Saturday night.
The hosts recorded only seven touches inside Phoenix Rising FC’s penalty area, only one of their six shots came inside the box – a header by Miguel Berry that never came close to threatening the goal – and recorded their lowest xG mark (0.32xG) of the season in front of the 5,800-strong crowd at a fully-reopened Torero Stadium.
And yet, as the final whistle blew, SD Loyal had earned a 2-1 victory to run its undefeated streak to five games and created further separation between itself and the teams below the playoff line in the Championship’s Pacific Division.
“Soccer is a funny game. We were much better in Phoenix and probably deserved to win that game,” said SD Loyal Manager Landon Donovan. “Given everything that happened, a point probably would have been fair tonight. We thank the soccer gods. They do look down on you. We’re proud of our guys. It was a different kind of performance. It’s not like us to not have the ball and get pinned on our end.”
The difference? That would have been on one hand Jack Blake, and a defense backed by goalkeeper Trey Muse that unlike its late collapse at Wild Horse Pass two weeks prior stood firm in the face of Phoenix’s late-game drive for an equalizer.
Blake is no stranger to providing fireworks against Phoenix. After Saturday night, he had recorded four goals in six games against Rising FC across the regular season and playoffs in his career, a personal high against an individual club in the Championship. All four have come from beyond the penalty area as well, going back to the finish that sparked Real Monarchs SLC to a 2-1 victory in Phoenix during the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs on the way to claiming a league title.
In his second home game for SD Loyal, he showed exactly why Donovan and the club had brought him aboard as a free agent this offseason. The pocket of space the English midfielder found to turn into and fire precisely into the left corner of the net was narrow, and his aim was just as true in the second half with a lethal finish into the bottom-right corner of the net.
Three of Blake’s four goals this season have now come against Phoenix, and he was understandably delighted to have helped pave the way to a big win in the big picture for his side.
“This so special,” he said. “The lads and I have been looking forward to this game for so long to be at full capacity and to hear the fans behind us and to get that [second] goal in front of [the supporters’ section] was so special.”
Blake’s second goal 12 minutes into the second half gave San Diego the same platform it had held in Phoenix on June 5, and when Rising FC’s Arturo Rodriguez scored his first league goal in the club’s colors midway through the half it felt as though the pressure on SD Loyal’s goal was only just beginning. Phoenix recorded seven of the final eight shots of the game in the final 20 minutes and stoppage time, but the efforts of the defense and some off-target finishing left Muse with only one more save to make as the hosts this time held on.
“It’s just about character and digging in,” said Blake. “We can learn from our mistakes. We gave up two late in Phoenix, but we just keep getting better. That’s all we can do. The schedule killed us for a little bit with the first seven of eight away but it’s great to pick up points at home and make this place a fortress like we have so far.”
It wasn’t in the manner Donovan or his side would have planned. You could certainly argue it would not be a repeatable display given the overall edge Phoenix held in shots (21-6), shots on goal (7-4) and Expected Goals (2.34xG-0.32xg).
But on Saturday night, SD Loyal showed the sort of determination and quality that will stand it in good stead for bigger games to come.