PHOENIX – The postseason journey for Western Conference No. 3-seed Phoenix Rising FC and Didier Drogba took its first step on Friday night as the legendary forward put home a trademark free kick to open a 3-0 win against the No. 6-seed Portland Timbers 2 before the largest crowd in the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex’s history of 7,511 fans in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs.
Second-half goals by Jason Johnson and Solomon Asante wrapped up the victory as Rising FC claimed its first playoff win in its first home postseason contest as Portland’s magical season came to an end. Phoenix will now await the winner of Saturday night’s contest between No. 2-seed Sacramento Republic FC and the No. 7-seed Swope Park Rangers.
Six days on from the last encounter between Phoenix and Portland there was little of the flash that Rising FC displayed on that occasion in the opening minutes. Instead, it was Portland that held more initiative in the opening 15 minutes and the visitors produced the first good look at goal as a result when Marvin Loria’s shot from the right side of the penalty area flashed wide of the left post.
Loria – who had six goals during the regular season – also forced the first save in the 17th minute after Dairon Asprilla’s initial shot caromed to him at the top of the penalty area for a curling finish that was comfortably handled by Rising FC goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski.
As comfortable as the visitors looked, though, they almost handed Rising FC the opening goal as Drogba seized on a defensive giveaway, only for the covering speed of T2 defender Marco Farfan to neutralize the chance as he slid in and pushed the shooting chance behind.
Given a second chance after being fouled 35 yards from goal, though, Drogba delivered. The former Ivory Coast international’s effort in the 28th minute was struck with venom that saw it swerve toward the top-left corner, and while T2 goalkeeper Austin Pack made contact as he tried to punch over the crossbar the ball’s momentum was too much as it rattled into the net.
Behind to the first shot it had allowed, Portland went back to work and twice forced low saves by Woszczynski, including off a deflected shot by Andre Lewis just before the halftime break that the Rising FC goalkeeper reacted well on to deny. T2’s Renzo Zambrano also fired from long range early in the second half as his shot went just high and wide of the right post, but Rising FC’s defense remained compact and offered few chances for the visitors to penetrate.
Instead it was Phoenix that produced a decisive move on the counterattack in the 58th minute that saw Asante spring Johnson into the left channel and through one-on-one with Pack only for Johnson's chipped finish to go wide of the left post. The chance appeared to invigorate the hosts, however, and two minutes later Pack had to deny Chris Cortez at the near post on a shot from the right side of the penalty area, Asante again pulling the strings to set up the chance.
But as Drogba had in the first half, Johnson made the most of his second opportunity. Running onto a long ball over the top by Cortez, the Jamaican won his one-on-one battle in the left side of the penalty area and fired low to the near post, sneaking his effort past Pack and just inside the upright for a two-goal lead.
Portland sought an avenue back but found itself out of luck when the chance to finish presented itself. Asprilla curled a shot from 16 yards just wide of the top-left corner with 11 minutes to go and then had a shot cleared off the line by Rising FC defender Mike Da Fonte after a mesmerizing dribble into the left side of the penalty area.
Loria also threatened the top-left corner a minute later from 23 yards as his curling shot went just wide, but in the final minute Phoenix ensured there would be no comeback when Asante controlled cleverly to create a window of space after second-half substitute Billy Forbes’ shot had been blocked and wrapped up Rising FC’s first postseason victory in club history with a finish to the right side of the goal.
28’ – PHX – Didier Drogba
62’ – PHX – Jason Johnson (Chris Cortez)
90’ – PHX – Solomon Asante
#PHXvPOR: Highlights and Opta Box Score
1. The light is always green for Didier Drogba on set pieces, as evidenced by tremendous long-range strikes over not just his two seasons in the USL but a spectacular career, and with his fifth goal of the season he showed once again why opponents can’t afford to give away careless free kicks in their own half. The powerfully-struck shot toward the top-left corner could have been dealt with better, but the venom that was behind the shot gave the club-record crowd of 7,511 at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex the moment they had come to see in the club’s first home postseason contest in its history and showed once again why they call the man, The King.
2. Drogba’s second career USL Cup Playoffs goal was crucial to the hosts, but arguably as important was the second-half finish by Jason Johnson that saw the Jamaican score his first goal since June 17 that gave Rising FC a two-goal lead just past the hour-mark. Johnson’s injury-marred second half of the regular season seemed to take some edge off what was building to be a second consecutive spectacular year between March and June, and if he can get on track in the attacking third it’s only going to make Phoenix that much more dangerous moving forward.
3. There was only one change to Portland’s starting lineup from its victory in the regular-season finale between the clubs, but incoming goalkeeper Austin Pack would have hoped for a better display that saw him beaten twice in a deflating fashion. Didier Drogba’s first-half free kick was fiercely-struck, certainly, but Pack having got to the ball in time needed to produce a cleaner punch. The bigger mistake, though, came on Rising FC’s second goal that saw him retreat instead of come and claim a ball he would have been favorite to reach first, allowing Jason Johnson to win possession and put home a low finish at the near post. Portland will learn from its first postseason trip, but that won't make the sting of the errors that cost the side dear any less harsh.
USLSoccer.com Man of the Match
Solomon Asante, Phoenix Rising FC – Asante was rewarded for a stellar all-around display with his late goal after completing 30 of 35 passes overall and record two key passes to help Rising FC advance.
Western Conference Semifinals – Phoenix Rising FC vs. Sacramento Republic FC / Swope Park Rangers winner
Portland Timbers 2 – End of Season