PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising FC produced an outstanding second-half performance to advance to the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs as it took a 4-2 victory against defending conference champion the Swope Park Rangers before a club-record crowd of 7,707 on Friday night at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex.
Both sides held the lead in the first half as Rising FC took the lead in the 22nd minute through Jason Johnson, but the Rangers quickly responded with goals seven minutes apart by Tyler Blackwood and Hadji Barry. Chris Cortez got Phoenix back on level terms before halftime, though, and then Phoenix grabbed an early lead in the second half through Kevon Lambert before a stoppage-time goal by Didier Drogba ensured the hosts gained revenge for their elimination from the postseason a season ago by their visitors.
The game opened slowly with Phoenix happy to cede possession to Swope Park, and the Rangers showed some patience early but still looked to try and find a way in behind Rising FC’s defense with a well-aimed ball in behind the compact defensive lines.
The hosts, meanwhile, were happy to try and counter at pace, but Phoenix’s first clear chance came through an errant pass by Rangers goalkeeper Eric Dick, whose ball from his own six-yard area didn’t pick out a teammate and instead came to Drogba at the top of the penalty area. The former Ivory Coast international struck first-time but his finish wasn’t precise enough to punish the visitors as Dick saved comfortably.
Dick was called on again in the 20th minute as Phoenix generated a chance from a set piece that saw Drogba float in a straight delivery from near the center circle that Johnson flicked on near the penalty spot into the arms of the well-positioned goalkeeper.
That chance began a good spell of Phoenix pressure, and two minutes after his initial chance Johnson put the hosts ahead. After Swope Park was unable to effectively clear a pair of crosses the ball fell to the Jamaican, who navigated his way past Colton Storm into the left side of the penalty area and then fired low into the right corner of the net for his second goal of the postseason.
Swope Park’s response was immediate, and also came from a piece of poor defending as Kharlton Belmar’s low cross into the six-yard area caused an indecisive clearance by Saad Abdul-Salaam that fell perfectly for Blackwood to tuck home first time from eight yards. Blackwood, who had a previous stop with Phoenix, then almost had a chance to put the visitors ahead when Carl Woszczynski spilled a 50-50 ball against his former teammate, but the English forward was unable to curl a finish into the open net from outside the right corner of the penalty area as the Rising FC defense retreated to cover.
The momentum the Rangers gained from the equalizer quickly resulted in the visitors taking the lead just past the half-hour mark, however. Belmar threatened initially as he brilliantly cut past his man to create space in the right side of the penalty area only to be denied by Woszczynski, but Swope Park recycled possession quickly to the right where Belmar’s cross was volleyed home at the far post by leading scorer Barry for his second goal of the playoffs.
As quickly as Swope Park responded to Phoenix’s opening goal, Rising FC responded in kind to the Rangers taking the lead to cap a flurry of four goals in 14 minutes. A quick move from left to right in the Swope Park half saw Solomon Asante find Drogba in space on the right, and his cross was turned in on the volley by Cortez at the top of the six-yard area to leave the game level at halftime.
The action quickly picked up where it left off as Rising FC regained the lead three minutes after the break as a piece of high pressure won possession in Swope Park’s attacking third. A low cross from the left deflected to Lambert, whose shot was almost blocked wide by a charging defender but instead deflected off the inside of the left post and into the net.
Phoenix’s selective pressure continued to pay dividends as the second half wore on as the Rangers had limited opportunity to counter when Rising FC had numbers forward. When Swope Park did get into the attacking third, Phoenix’s defense remained compact and offered little opening for an answer to Lambert’s goal. The visitors’ first shot on goal of the second half didn’t arrive until there were 12 minutes to go, and even then, Wan Kuzain’s effort from outside the penalty area was comfortably saved by Woszczynski.
Rising FC had a chance to ice the game with nine minutes to go as Asante broke forward into the right channel and centered for a shot by Cortez that went wide of the right post. The insurance goal arrived through Drogba deep in stoppage time, however, as the veteran forward scored his third goal in as many USL Cup Playoffs games over the past two seasons, tucking home from close range from Asante’s low cross after Phoenix had won possession in the attacking half to keep the club’s dream of sending out the legendary forward with one final piece of silverware alive.
22’ – PHX – Jason Johnson
26’ – SPR – Tyler Blackwood
33’ – SPR – Hadji Barry (Kharlton Belmar)
36’ – PHX – Chris Cortez (Didier Drogba)
48’ – PHX – Kevon Lambert
90+4’ – PHX – Didier Drogba (Solomon Asante)
Three Things That Matter:
1. Phoenix Rising FC’s resilience was tested regularly by the defending Western Conference champion Swope Park Rangers, but after sustaining a pair of body blows midway through the first half Phoenix found the response it needed to book its first trip to the Western Conference Final in a victory that showed the measure of the side that was in contention for top spot in the conference standings until the final week of the regular season. A stellar defensive display throughout the second half was at the heart of the victory for the hosts after a thrill-ride of a first half had seen defensive errors from both sides, which allowed Kevon Lambert’s goal just after the halftime break to stand as the winner in a second consecutive compelling postseason clash between the two clubs.
2. Arguably the biggest halftime adjustment Phoenix implemented to employ pressure selectively in Swope Park’s half after rarely contesting possession beyond the halfway line in the first half made the biggest difference in the game as it not only led directly to Lambert’s goal, but also limited Swope Park’s opportunities to find a way back after it had gone behind for a second time. Rising FC’s pressure, highlighted by five interceptions and recoveries and three won tackles from 45 yards and closer to the Rangers’ goal, took Swope Park out of the passing rhythm that had regularly allowed the visitors to move into the attacking half unimpeded in the first half that in turn had led to scoring chances. Swope Park was held to only two shots on goal after the break as its reign as Western Conference champion came to an end.
3. Swope Park had a déjà vu moment in the first half as it again rallied from a goal down to take the lead just past the half-hour mark on Hadji Barry’s 19th goal of the season, but in the end the side seemed to run out of steam as Phoenix’s resistance in its defensive end left the visitors with few clear looks on goal in the second half. The Rangers will take a lot from this contest in the long run as its young standouts head into the offseason, but the inability to solve the puzzle that Phoenix’s adjustments posed them will be a disappointing one for a side brimming with talent that couldn’t quite find the formula that had produced seven consecutive victories in the postseason against Western Conference opposition prior to Friday night.
USLSoccer.com Man of the Match
Kevon Lambert, Phoenix Rising FC – Lambert produced the game-winning goal, but also acted effectively as a shield in front of the back four over much of the contest as he won six of eight duels overall and completed 23 of 27 passes.
Western Conference Final – Phoenix Rising FC at Orange County SC – Saturday, Nov. 3, 10 p.m. ET, Champions Soccer Stadium
Swope Park Rangers – End of Season