PHOENIX – Five years ago in its first trip to the postseason, Rio Grande Valley FC suffered heartbreak in stoppage time to end what had been a dream inaugural season.
On Saturday, in its first playoff game since that night, the Toros redeemed themselves with the second major upset of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires.
Elvis Amoh scored both a penalty kick in the second period of extra time that followed superb individual finishes by Baboucarr Nije and Rodrigo Lopez in the opening 90 minutes, and the decisive shot in the fifth round of the penalty shootout that sent Rio Grande Valley FC to a 4-3 victory against Phoenix Rising FC after the teams had played to a 3-3 draw after regulation and extra time to advance in the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Saturday night at Wild Horse Pass, eliminating a second division title winner from the postseason in the Western Conference after El Paso Locomotive FC’s loss on Friday night.
With the win, Rio Grande Valley FC will visit San Antonio FC in the Western Conference Semifinals next weekend in the first postseason edition of the South Texas Derby at Toyota Field.
The Toros took an early advantage in the shootout when in the second round, goalkeeper Colin Miller made a diving save to deny Phoenix’s Arturo Rodriguez’s shot to the left side. After RGVFC’s Emilio Ycaza cemented the advantage by converting to put the visitors ahead, Miller made a second consecutive save to keep out Aodhan Quinn’s shot to the right side as the Toros took a two-goal lead after Erik Pimentel’s conversion to close the third round.
The hosts were given a glimmer of hope in the fourth round as after Joey Farrell scored, Rising FC goalkeeper Andre Rawls denied Lopez’s shot to the right side, but after Santi Moar pulled the score level again to open the fifth round, Amoh kept his nerve from the spot for a second time on the night to send the Toros to their first postseason victory in club history.
Entering off a three-game winning streak to close the regular season while looking to vanquish the ghosts of their 3-2 defeat to OKC Energy FC in 2016, the Toros were aggressive early on and almost grabbed the lead in the seventh minute. Awarded a free kick in a central position almost 30 yards from goal, Lopez stepped up for the visitors and rang the left post with a fierce, curling shot that caromed away to safety. As the tempo remained high from the visitors, Phoenix quickly picked up the pace as well as the teams began to exchange chances. In the 15th minute, Quinn produced a fine dipping shot from 25 yards that went narrowly over the crossbar before two minutes later RGVFC’s Kyle Edwards found the net but was denied by the offside flag as he broke a fraction too soon onto Christian Sorto’s through-ball before finishing.
Less than 60 seconds later it was Phoenix’s turn again when Darren Mattocks delivered a looping header off a cross from the right by Solomon Asante that narrowly dropped wide of the left post, but in the 19th minute it was the Toros who hit the front thanks to an astounding individual effort by Baboucarr Nije. The Gambian left back controlled a long ball around 10 yards inside his own half on his chest, and quickly moved into space, first through the midfield and then the back line as he retained his balance under a challenge before driving a low shot just inside the right post for a remarkable finish.
The lead lasted only four minutes, however, as Phoenix struck back in equally impressive fashion. Awarded a free kick beyond the top-right edge of the penalty area, Asante delivered a right-footed shot over the defensive wall and just inside the near post to record his first goal since July 17 and his ninth goal of the campaign overall.
The hosts almost gained the lead nine minutes before halftime as Mattocks had a shot from the right side of the penalty area blocked onto the right post by Juan David Cabezas and behind for a corner kick, while a minute later Farrell also went close with an improvised bicycle kick off a header by James Musa that Miller saved after coming off his line to challenge.
While momentum turned in favor of the hosts for a spell, the pendulum swung back to the Toros late in the half. First, Sorto sent a shot just wide of the left post after picking up the pieces in the penalty area to move into space to shoot and then Nije went for another spectacular strike from a narrow angle on the left flank that flew into the side netting.
But after reaching the break level the Toros handed the lead to the hosts nine minutes into the second half as an ill-judged pass by Carter Manley was intercepted by Luis Seijas just outside the top-left corner of the penalty area. Seijas quickly slipped a pass inside for Rodriguez, who struck first time into the right corner of the net to put Rising FC ahead. Seven minutes later, Phoenix had a chance to add to its advantage as Moar played Mattocks in as he looped around to his left only for a low shot to be saved by Miller.
Having had a sighter come off the post to start the game, however, Lopez delivered an equalizer with 19 minutes to go. Awarded a free kick beyond the top-left edge of the penalty area around 23 yards from goal, the veteran playmaker delivered a shot into the top-left corner of the net past the despairing dive of Rawls to bring the Toros level for his fourth consecutive game with a goal.
Phoenix looked to end the game in regulation, and in the 76th minute Jon Bakero was ruled offside as he headed home a free kick from the right before Asante went close from another set piece of his own, curling a low shot to the right corner that Miller turned wide. Rodriguez then almost grabbed a winner with four minutes to go as Rising FC caught out the visitors with a quickly taken free kick down the left that allowed Tate Schmitt to deliver a cross to the open attacking midfielder near the top of the six-yard area, but his cushioned first-time finish went just wide of the left post as the teams went to extra time.
Rising FC’s momentum continued as the extra session began with both Moar and Asante looking to create from the flanks. As the pressure built, however, Phoenix almost got caught out defensively on the counterattack as a long ball upfield sprang Sorto free on the right for a long run in on goal that saw him cut back past a defender but have his shot denied by Rawls.
Phoenix quickly got back onto the front foot, and its pressure almost paid off when Moar played a clever give-and-go to move into the left side of the penalty area and powered a shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and rebounded out before being cleared. The breakthrough came for the hosts in the 101st minute, though, as another intricate piece of play into the penalty area saw Rodriguez find Seijas before he slipped a pass to Jon Bakero, who drew Miller off his line before clipping a cross centrally for Asante to finish into the right corner for his second goal of the night.
As it seemed the hosts had a potential hold on the game, however, the Toros got a chance to level when in the 107th minute Vicente Sanchez was brought down as he broke onto a through-ball by Ycaza to earn the visitors a penalty kick. Amoh stepped up and fired into the right side of the net as Rawls went the opposite way.
From there, the visitors solidified defensively to see out the remaining minutes as Rising FC’s efforts to claim a winner went in vain, and thanks to Miller and Amoh’s heroics came away with a remarkable victory to advance on.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Rodrigo Lopez, Rio Grande Valley FC – Lopez scored a key goal in the second half to send the game to extra time and was influential throughout the 120 minutes, recording four shots and two key passes while completing 46 of 55 passes and winning 11 of 17 duels.
RGV – Baboucarr Nije 19’
PHX – Solomon Asante 24’
PHX – Arturo Rodriguez (Luis Seijas) 54’
RGV – Rodrigo Lopez 71’
PHX – Solomon Asante (Jon Bakero) 101’
RGV – Elvis Amoh (Penalty Kick) 108’
Phoenix Rising FC – Jon Bakero, scored; Arturo Rodriguez, saved; Aodhan Quinn, saved; Joey Farrell, scored; Santi Moar, scored
Rio Grande Valley FC – Baboucarr Nije, scored; Emilio Ycaza, scored; Erik Pimentel, scored; Rodrigo Lopez, saved; Elvis Amoh, scored