SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Phoenix Rising FC rallied in dramatic fashion to take a 2-1 victory against Sacramento Republic FC in the Western Conference Final of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs on Saturday night at Heart Health Park as Emil Cuello’s goal in second-half stoppage time earned the visitors victory.
Here are three things we took away from the contest.
Phoenix Rising FC had the majority of possession in the first half on Saturday night, but didn’t find a way to seriously threaten the hosts in the attacking third with only two efforts on goal, and only one on target. That shifted after the break as Phoenix became more aggressive with its positioning and pressing, putting Sacramento under more pressure which resulted in the key moment of the game.
Off a chest-down by Danny Trejo that could have been dealt with by Sacramento’s Matt LaGrassa, second-half substitute Emil Cuello seized on the opportunity of a 50-50 ball and won possession, quickly turning upfield. The former Republic FC player then unleashed a vicious dipping shot that proved too good to find the back of the net.
Phoenix had 34 entries into Sacramento’s final third in the second half of the contest – 12 more than in the first half – and the combination of dictating where the game was going to be played and its sharp pressing proved crucial in the end.
A key for Phoenix was likely to be whether it would be able to find success in the center of the field against a strong Republic FC unit. With more than 50 percent of the game played in the central third of the field, that came to pass, and Rising FC’s group was up to the challenge.
Phoenix won 57 percent of overall duels and 70 percent of aerial duels in the contest, with Panamanian midfielder Carlos Harvey leading the way. The 23-year-old won a game-high 13 duels out of 21 overall and he was ably backed by Jose Hernandez (6 of 9) and center back John Stenberg (6 of 8) to keep Phoenix in the game even after they went behind. This is Rising FC’s second comeback win of the playoffs, and the third time they’ve won away from home this season after conceding first.
There had been no better team this season at holding a lead than Sacramento Republic FC, which was 19-0-3 when it opened the scoring and hadn’t lost at home after leading at halftime since the 2019 season. It all came apart at the end, however, when a missed defensive clearance turned into an unlucky own goal by Conor Donovan before Cuello’s moment of brilliance ended Sacramento’s season.
Republic FC will look back on this game with major disappointment having been in position to not only claim the Western Conference title after Russell Cicerone’s excellent first-half finish, but to host the Championship Final a week from now. That’s how tough playoff soccer can be sometimes, and it’ll be a long offseason for a side that seemed set to end its 10th anniversary campaign on a high.