Phoenix Rising FC claimed its first USL Championship title on Sunday night, defeating the Charleston Battery 3-2 in a penalty shootout at Patriots Point after the sides had ended in a 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time in an enthralling contest before a sellout crowd of 5,094 fans.
Here are three things we took away from the contest.
We knew about Phoenix Rising FC’s resilience this postseason – and that the side had scored a league-high 19 goals in the final 15 minutes and stoppage time in the second half over the full campaign – but as little as the visitors had tested Trey Muse in the Charleston goal it felt like the visitors might have run out of their late-game magic this time.
Instead, maybe the most unlikely goalscorer popped up to deliver his first goal of the campaign to save Rising FC’s season. Swedish center back John Stenberg arrived in the 90th minute to nod home a cross by fellow center back Mohamed Traore to deliver Phoenix new life, the latest hero to deliver this postseason. Each time Rising FC has found itself up against the wall this postseason, they have found a way to pull back from the brink, and this time it provided the platform for the biggest night in the club’s history.
Rocco Rios Novo's pair of penalty saves came on the back of a seven-save performance across regulation and extra time that helped deliver the title.
Rocco Rios Novo has had a breakout season, earning nomination for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award after topping 100 saves in the regular season and a career-best save percentage. He might, however, have saved his best performance of the season for the biggest game of the year.
Rios Novo made seven saves across regulation and extra time, including a pair of important saves late in regulation to keep out chances for Charleston’s Nick Markanich and Arturo Rodriguez that would likely have put the game out of reach. When it came to the shootout, however, he was the coolest head in the stadium. With a chance to pull his side back all square in the fourth round, he got a good read on Chris Allan’s shot to deny it, and then won his side the game with a fine low stop on Derek Dodson.
Rios Novo had saved 3 of 11 penalties he had faced previously in the USL Championship, making him a potential star in a shootout. His calmness under pressure at 21-years-old was remarkable, and made him a worth Championship Final MVP.
The Charleston Battery were as close as they could come to lifting a fifth league title, and would have been worth winners had they held onto the first-half lead that Nick Markanich’s sweetly-struck finish delivered. The Battery were the superior side before the break and might have capitalized more on the territory and chances they created over the first hour of the game.
The hosts were then handed a massive advantage in the penalty shootout through Trey Muse’s pair of saves, but in the end the nerves seemed to get to the side – and potentially some tired legs as well. Leland Archer’s shot wide of the left post in the third round of the shootout began the spiral, and then Allan and Dodson – both of whom had gone the full 120 minutes – couldn’t capitalize to end a dream season.
The Battery only used three of their substitutes over the full game, and while there was still enough life in those legs to deliver chances in the second half of extra time – including a chance Augustine Williams did well to get to but just couldn’t control in the 108th minute – the mental fatigue might have shown when the pressure ramped up from the spot. By contrast, all five of Phoenix’s shooters were substitutes, and delivered under pressure.