PHOENIX – Having been left frustrated by a well-organized Portland Timbers 2 defense in the regular-season finale between the two clubs, Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz and his side to worked on a different plan of attack ahead of the rematch between the clubs in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs on Friday night.
The more measured approach that allowed Portland more time on the ball and more shots throughout the contest paid off handsomely as Rising FC took a 3-0 victory to the delight of a club-record crowd of 7,511 fans to earn its first postseason victory in club history and put itself two wins from a place in the 2018 USL Cup.
"Last week Portland did a really good job of getting in a block behind the ball and we got frustrated and we were trying to get really difficult scoring opportunities,” said Schantz. “The plan tonight was for us to sit back a little bit and try and open space behind them. We weren't really playing that great but Didier's free kick kind-of rescued us in the first half. I told the coaches at halftime, ‘if we get through 15 minutes, it's going to open up’, and the guys did the job.”
For a while, though, it appeared that the more reserved approach was starting to play into Portland’s hands. T2 took the first four shots of the game, including a good curling effort by Marvin Loria in the 17th minute that produced a diving save from Rising FC goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski. As Schantz noted, the hosts weren’t exactly going great guns when they got hold of possession during the first half.
But as has been the case in the past, that doesn’t always matter when you have Didier Drogba at your disposal.
Already denied a shooting chance by an outstanding challenge by U.S. youth international Marco Farfan, the 40-year-old former Ivory Coast international was fouled 35 yards from goal on a careless challenge by T2 defender Adrian Diz Pe where there seemed little attacking threat forthcoming. Drogba’s response was decisive as he fired a sweetly-struck effort that T2 goalkeeper Austin Pack reached in time but couldn’t keep out of the top-left corner of the net.
Phoenix Rising FC's Didier Drogba strikes a first-half free kick that put the hosts ahead and on their way to victory in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
“Didier really set the table for us this week,” said Schantz. “He said he would be ready to carry us to a victory and he stepped up. Like I said, we weren't playing very well in the first half and for him to hit that free kick the way that he did, he kind of put the team on his back and he got us that victory.”
Portland continued to be the more aggressive team in terms of chances for the rest of the first half and early in the second, twice being denied by Woszczynski on low efforts before the halftime break, but as the game approached the hour-mark Schantz’s expectation that things would start to open up proved correct. Solomon Asante created a pair of chances for Jason Johnson and Chris Cortez that weren’t put away, but when Cortez sent a hopeful ball over the top from 10 yards inside his own half for Johnson to chase the Jamaican made the most of it, winning the battle for the ball before firing home low at the near post.
The goal was Johnson’s first since June 17, since when injury had derailed what had looked like another promising season for the standout forward, which gave Johnson a big boost in confidence ahead of next week’s Western Conference Semifinals.
“Obviously after coming from injury, and having a chance to play again this season, I feel great,” said Johnson. “[We] didn't finish on some of our chances, well, all of our chances, last week. To come here and finish three this week, it shows how well and focused we were this week in training and how forward we were looking for this game.”
Phoenix Rising FC's Jason Johnson scored his first goal since June 17 to put the hosts two goals ahead in the second half. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
From there, Woszczynski and his defense did the rest of the work as T2 was left as frustrated by Rising FC’s defense as the hosts had felt the week before. A goal-line clearance by Mike Da Fonte denied Dairon Asprilla to keep it a two-goal game with 10 minutes to go, while other chances just missed the target before Asante’s 90th-minute tally closed out the result.
For the club’s long-time players and fans, the night was one that was long overdue, but that set up what both hope will be a deep postseason run.
“It's my fourth year at the club and my first home playoff game and I was lucky enough to play in it, and I wasn't going to let us lose,” said Woszczynski. “Overall, it was a great team effort. Everybody gave 100 percent the whole game and the crowd was incredible, It's the loudest I've heard the stadium ever so that's great props to them. 3-0 is a great result and let's see what happens with the other game and move on to next week, back to work.”