PHOENIX – As soon as Phoenix Rising FC learned that it would be taking on the defending Western Conference champion Swope Park Rangers for a place in the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs, defensive midfielders Kevon Lambert and Collin Fernandez knew there was going to be a long night in store at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex.
But after a first-half display that saw the visitors find seams around the penalty area that led to a pair of goals that briefly put the Rangers in front, the duo put in a stellar second-half display that played a key role in sending Phoenix to a 4-2 victory before a crowd of 7,707 fans that set a club attendance record for a second consecutive week that kept Rising FC rolling toward its goal of the USL Cup.
“We came out with a game plan and we stuck to it,” said Lambert. “We stuck to what the coaches told us to do, and I think it paid off. Well, it definitely paid off because we're now moving to the final.”
The final numbers from the contest might not show it, but the work Lambert and Fernandez – and Solomon Asante checking back into midfield from his attacking position wide on the right side – did helped frustrate a Rangers side that had looked more than a match for Phoenix in the first half as it looked to find a way back into the game for much of the second half.
Holding two-thirds of possession before the halftime break, Swope Park’s midfield had time on the ball to try and pick out incisive passes through Phoenix’s defensive midfield lines and over the top to the flanks that played a role in both the Rangers’ two goals. The Rangers’ second goal in particular illustrated the visitor’s success moving the ball upfield as Wan Kuzain’s initial pass was cleverly flicked to Tyler Blackwood by Kharlton Belmar, who received the return pass breaking in behind the Phoenix defense. Rising FC goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski kept out that chance, but the clearance only came as far as Swope Park’s Colton Storm, who navigated past Fernandez to set up Belmar for a cross from the right to the back post that Hadji Barry was on hand to volley home.
Phoenix responded to that in the second half by looking to apply pressure higher up the field that left Kuzain and Felipe Hernandez with less time to pick out the passes that had caused Rising FC trouble.
“We talked with Didier [Drogba] and Chris [Cortez], and said you're going to have to take away their No. 6, because that's where the 3-v-2 is,” said Phoenix Head Coach Rick Schantz. “When you have Collin Fernandez and Kevon Lambert, I can't wait to look at their numbers because I'm sure those guys ran 11 kilometers. They worked hard. That's what I asked of them, to suffer and sacrifice for the team. When they do that, we're pretty good.”
That pressure led directly to what proved to be the game-winning goal early in the second half after Chris Cortez’s goal nine minutes before halftime had produced a crucial response to the Rangers taking the lead. A challenge by Cortez on Hernandez in the attacking third saw the ball pop to Fernandez, whose pass quickly found Jason Johnson in space on the left.
The Jamaican’s low cross took a deflection but caromed to the top of the penalty area where Lambert hit a first-time shot that deflected off a sliding defender looking to block, but still found its mark as it pinged off the left post and into the back of the net. For Lambert – who had his opening penalty kick in the shootout between the two teams in last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals saved by SPR goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod as Rising FC suffered a tough defeat – the goal provided a measure of redemption from last year’s disappointment.
“It's a really great feeling,” Lambert said. “I can't even explain who I feel right now to be scoring in this type of game and helping the team to move on to the finals. It's a really good feeling.”
“I just heard the stadium erupt, I turned around and saw the ball go into the net and I'm just so happy that we can take the lead,” added Cortez, whose initial play created the chance. “Lambert's an awesome guy and a guy who doesn't get too many goals on the season so it's great for him and a great result for us to go in the right direction.”
Phoenix Rising FC midfielder Kevon Lambert battles for possession with Swope Park Rangers midfielders Wan Kuzain (left) and Felipe Hernandez. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
Rising FC will now wait to find out who its opponent in the Western Conference Final will be, and where that game will be played as No. 1-seed Orange County SC takes on No. 5-seed Reno 1868 FC in the second Western Conference Semifinal on Saturday night. Should Reno earn victory on the road at Champions Soccer Stadium, that would mean another home date for No. 3-seed Phoenix next Friday night before support that has seen more than 15,000 fans on hand at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex in the opening two rounds of the postseason.
But no matter who the opponent is, or where the game will be held, Rising FC believes it will have the means to advance to the 2018 USL Cup.
"We'll be ready,” said Schantz. “We'll be ready either way. We'll celebrate, we'll enjoy this. The club is now in the Western Conference Finals. We'll enjoy this first before we worry about that. I know they're excited because tomorrow night they're going to go watch the game together.”