IRVINE, Calif. – Emile Cuello scored with four minutes to go in extra time to send No. 6 seed Phoenix Rising FC to a 2-1 victory against No. 2 seed Orange County SC in the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs, giving the two-time Western Conference title winner a second consecutive road upset in extra time this postseason.
Rising FC opened the scoring with its first chance of the game as a long ball upfield by Carlos Harvey picked out Danny Trejo, who held off his marker to finish in the seventh minute. Orange County took control for much of the remainder of the first half, however, and leveled in the 24th minute when Milan Iloski picked out Ryan Doghman as he broke in unmarked on the left side, and Doghman’s low cross was put away by Thomas Amang at the back post.
The game tightened up in the second half as Rising FC gained more control in what became a midfield battle as both teams only had one shot apiece after the halftime break, sending the game into extra time. For a second consecutive weekend, however, Phoenix found a winner as Emile Cuello scored his second goal of the season with a roofed finish in the 116th minute that proved the difference and sent Rising FC on.
1. Phoenix Rising FC was up against it for most of the first half, even with Danny Trejo’s excellent opening goal, as Orange County SC built pressure in the attacking half that resulted in not only an equalizer but a 12-2 advantage in shots before the halftime break. The resulting response from Phoenix was exactly what was needed after the halftime break, which saw the visitors not only maintain more possession – as it had in the first half – but do so in a way that put OCSC on its heels more consistently. It didn’t result in a decisive moment in regulation, but the play of Carlos Harvey and Jose Hernandez in retaining possession and the individual defending of Mohamed Traore helped the visitors reset and gain a necessary foothold in the game.
2. Apparently, Emil Cuello has a thing about scoring against Orange County SC. After powering home an equalizer when these sides met in Phoenix on September 30 to earn Rising FC a point, the Argentine delivered the decisive blow in the 116th minute to send his squad into the Western Conference Final for the first time since the 2020 season. Cuello’s powerful strike after a well-worked maneuver with fellow substitute Erickson Gallardo was close to the equal of Dariusz Formella’s game-winner in San Diego in the Conference Quarterfinals and earned Cuello and his current side a date with former club Sacramento Republic FC next Saturday night.
3. Orange County will likely look back on the dominance it had in the first half and be disappointed to not have made more of the chances it had to put itself ahead at the break. The hosts were limited to only one shot in the second half while holding only 31 percent of possession, and while there were chances in extra time for the side to find a winner the hosts were unable to seriously test Rocco Rios Novo in the Phoenix goal. As a final game for Milan Iloski before his transfer to Danish club FC Nordsjælland, this was a disappointing note to end the campaign on.
USLChampionship.com Player of the Game
Carlos Harvey, Phoenix Rising FC – The Panama international notched the assist on Trejo’s opening goal and put his imprint on the game in the second half as Phoenix gained more control in midfield, completing 82 of 94 passes and winning 10 of 19 duels.
PHX – Danny Trejo (Carlos Harvey) 7’
OC – Thomas Amang (Ryan Doghman) 24’
PHX – Emil Cuello (Erickson Gallardo) 116’