SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The No. 7-seed Swope Park Rangers rallied from an early deficit to upset the No. 2-seed Sacramento Republic FC with a 2-1 victory in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs at Papa Murphy’s Park to earn the first road postseason victory in the club’s history.
Goals four minutes apart by Wan Kuzain and Rangers’ leading scorer Hadji Barry answered an early finish by Sacramento’s Villyan Bijev to send the two-time defending Western Conference champions through. The Rangers will visit No. 3-seed Phoenix Rising FC next Friday night at 10:30 p.m. ET in the Western Conference Semifinals.
From the opening whistle, Republic FC had got onto the front foot and its pressure produced a good chance for Keven Aleman in the 12th minute as the Canadian international turned into space and fired a shot from 30 yards toward the right corner that SPR goalkeeper Eric Dick did well to turn away.
Sacramento’s pressure saw the hosts take the lead four minutes later as a tremendous piece of work by Shannon Gomez to reel in a long ball upfield in the left corner and deliver a cross resulted in a poor clearance by the Rangers defense that fell to Villyan Bijev, who needed little invitation to step into a low shot from 16 yards that buried into the back of the net.
Republic FC almost added to its lead in the 19th minute when Jure Matjasic’s long-range shot was parried away by Dick, and again five minutes later through Cameron Iwasa when a low ball through the six-yard area by Matjasic found Aleman near the right-side of the six-yard area. His layoff came to Iwasa 10 yards out, but Rangers defender Amer Didic did enough to block the shot high.
That intervention proved crucial just three minutes later when the Rangers capitalized on their first real look at goal when a half-cleared corner fell to Wan Kuzain at the top of the penalty area. The No. 3 selection on the 2018 USL 20 Under 20 quickly cut past a defender and worked space on the left side of the penalty area for a low, near-post finish that got past Republic FC goalkeeper Josh Cohen to level the score.
Kuzain’s goal sparked the Rangers to look for more, and in the 31st minute their second arrived as Rassambek Akhmatov got in on the right side and cut back a low ball to the top of the penalty area that Hadji Barry thundered home first time just inside the right post. Republic FC almost hit back just back before halftime as a corner kick found Bijev for a header from 12 yards, but Dick kept Swope Park ahead at the break with a solid save.
After going almost 20 minutes without a shot before its late chance in the first half, Sacramento went close again five minutes into the second half as Matjasic drifted in from the left to the top of the penalty area and fired an effort that rang the left post and was cleared. But for all of Republic FC’s possession after the halftime break, the hosts had difficulty finding a way through a Swope Park defense that closed well whenever Sacramento got into the final third to snuff out chances before they fully developed.
As the Rangers tried to remain compact defensively, they also found chances to add to their lead on the counterattack. Barry curled a shot on target from 25 yards in the 69th minute and eight minutes later Tyler Blackwood fired a finish from the left side of the penalty area, both of which were comfortably handled by Cohen.
Republic FC’s pressure continued to build in the final 10 minutes as the hosts camped out in the attacking half, but the Rangers defense continued to frustrate with well-timed challenges that limited a clear look at goal. One final chance came deep in stoppage time as a ball lifted into the top of the penalty area fell to Cole Seiler, but his first-time shot slid wide of the left post, so did Republic FC’s hopes as the Rangers ousted Sacramento for a second consecutive postseason.
16’ – SAC – Villyan Bijev
27’ – SPR – Wan Kuzain
31’ – SPR – Hadji Barry (Rassambek Akhmatov)
#SACvSPR: Highlights and Opta Box Score
1. The Swope Park Rangers produced one of the most uncharacteristic performances of their season in possession, and yet a resolute defensive effort that saw the side weather an early spell of pressure and take the only two chances it produced in the first half somehow saw it through. For a side that led the league in passes completed and was second in passing accuracy, the passing numbers weren’t pretty. Swope Park’s accuracy rate came in at just 71.39 percent, its third-lowest of the season, but with a win in hand that will be a matter for another day as the side survived and advanced.
2. The difference in the end proved to be finishing and defensive cohesiveness as the Rangers got a pair of well-taken strikes by Wan Kuzain and Hadji Barry that served as the club’s only two shots of the first half to rally back from a deficit. The back line led by Graham Smith and Amer Didic at center back rallied back itself from some early wobbles, one of which resulted in Sacramento’s opening goal, but the visitors allowed only one shot on target for the hosts in the second half to see out an impressive road victory.
3. Sacramento could – and maybe should – have done more with its outstanding opening to the game that saw Swope Park buckle under pressure for the opening goal and need some good saves by Eric Dick to keep it from being a larger deficit, but the hosts just weren’t incisive enough in the second half as it recorded only 12 touches inside the SPR penalty area after the break. Sacramento has now lost its last three home postseason contests after Western Conference Quarterfinals exits in 2015 and 2016, bringing the curtain down early on a postseason that seemed to be there for the taking after the club’s strong form to end the regular season.
USLSoccer.com Man of the Match
Graham Smith, Swope Park Rangers – Smith was excellent at the center of Swope Park’s defense, winning 12 of 15 duels and recording three tackles and 10 clearances to limit Sacramento’s chances in the final hour of the contest.
Western Conference Semifinals – Swope Park Rangers at Phoenix Rising FC, Friday, Oct. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET, Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex
Sacramento Republic FC – End of Season