SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Emil Cuello scored a stoppage-time winner as Phoenix Rising FC rallied late to defeat Sacramento Republic FC 2-1 to claim the Western Conference title in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs before a sellout crowd at Heart Health Park on Saturday night.
After a tight opening half-hour, Sacramento took the lead on its first shot of the game. A turnover in midfield was quickly shifted to Nick Ross, whose first-time pass found Russell Cicerone cutting toward the top of the penalty area. After a brilliant piece of control on the turn, Republic FC’s leading scorer fired home into the right corner of the net to break the deadlock.
The goal shifted momentum in Republic FC’s direction, and Jack Gurr had a first-time effort from outside the penalty area saved soon after. Phoenix’s best chance of the first half came in the 38th minute when Panos Armenakas’ shot from the right side of the penalty area was comfortably saved by Sacramento’s Danny Vitiello.
Rising FC produced pressure, but limited opportunities to find an equalizer as the second half progressed. With 10 minutes to play, however, the visitors pulled level as a free kick from the left by Renzo Zambrano fell loose in the penalty area and deflected in off Republic FC defender Conor Donovan for an own goal.
Then, in a dramatic ending, Phoenix grabbed victory as Cuello – a former Republic FC player – turned over possession 35 yards from goal and after moving into space unleashed a brilliant strike that bent and dipped into the net to send Rising FC into the USL Championship Final.
USLChampionship.com Player of the Game
Emil Cuello, Phoenix Rising FC – For a second consecutive game, Cuello delivered the game-winning goal after being brought on as a substitute, with his stoppage time blast earning Phoenix its third Western Conference title.
SAC – Russell Cicerone (Nick Ross) 31’
PHX – Conor Donovan (own goal) 80’
PHX – Emil Cuello 90+2’