The longest-serving player for Phoenix Rising FC, goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski has been a key figure on the field for the club in reaching Saturday's Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
PHOENIX – As the longest-serving player in the Phoenix Rising FC squad, goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski has seen first-hand how far the club has come since he first arrived prior to the 2015 USL regular season.
So as the Western Conference’s No. 3-seed prepares for its first appearance in the Western Conference Final of the USL Cup Playoffs on Saturday night against No. 1-seed Orange County SC at Champions Soccer Stadium (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), there was a moment for some reflection for the veteran shot-stopper this week as to how far both he and the club have come over the past four seasons.
“It’s been incredible,” said Woszczynski. “Being at Scottsdale Stadium in 2015 was alright, but then moving out to Peoria in 2016 was really a struggle. It was an hour, hour-and-a-half from where we all lived, it was tough to get fans out there, not nearly as nice of a set-up as we have now, so this is a dream come true.
“I think I’ve got the best of it in the league from what I’ve seen, great training facility right here, great stadium right here, incredible ownership that supports us every step of the way, great fan support, these past two home playoff games have been some of the best environments I’ve played in in my life.”
The changes at the club since Woszczynski arrived have come in all areas and have seen the club transform into one that is a success on and off the field. Having arrived in Phoenix after spending the 2014 season with Orlando City SC, which at that point was preparing to make its move to Major League Soccer, Woszczynski believes Rising FC is beyond where the Lions were at this stage of its progression as an organization.
That has reflected on the field, where the process of putting together a potential championship contender began with the arrival of players like Chris Cortez prior to the 2016 season as then-Head Coach Frank Yallop began to lay the groundwork for what was to come. While that season proved a disappointing one in terms of results, it started to pave the way for the club’s success over the past two seasons.
“Frank was the biggest reason I came out here from the beginning,” said Cortez. “He said, ‘trust me, there are going to be some big changes here,’ and sure enough you can see after that first year with what the rebrand was and how everything happened with Phoenix Rising and how it’s come along, I think it’s been fantastic off the field and that’s shown on the field with what we’ve been able to do with the team the last couple of years.”
Phoenix Rising FC's Chris Cortez, Carl Woszczynski and Zac Lubin at the club's official uniform unveiling that kicked off the 2018 season, which has proved the best in the club's history. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
Long-gone is the time when Woszczynski was the busiest goalkeeper in the USL, accumulating a single-season record of 130 saves in the club’s 2015 campaign, although the 30-year-old was still glad to hold onto his place in the USL record book this year as Tulsa Roughnecks FC goalkeeper Fabian Cerda almost claimed his crown.
“Yeah, I followed it along this year because Tulsa’s goalkeeper was getting close, so I was starting to worry,” said Woszczynski.
“He was getting nervous,” added Cortez with a laugh.
By comparison, this year Woszczynski racked up 82 saves and 12 shutouts with a 76.42 save percentage to help Phoenix post one of the better defensive records in the Western Conference. Cortez too had a career year with 18 goals in the regular season and playoffs, something that has been helped by both a full year of good health and the competition within the squad that has sharpened the side in all areas.
Now both players will get to face their former club in Orange County, which has undergone a similar transformation over the past two seasons. Woszczynski featured for the side during the 2012 and 2013 USL seasons, while Cortez spent three seasons at the club from 2013 to 2015 before arriving in Phoenix. As a Southern California native, Cortez is looking forward to heading back.
“Yeah, for me it’ll be enjoyable,” said Cortez. “All of my family lives in Southern California so that doesn’t hurt either, being able to see all the family and play in front of them will be a lot of fun. It’s a fun team to play, and luckily we’ve done well there. I think we’ve had some success against Orange County and we’re hoping to be able to repeat that here again this weekend.”
“Any time you go up against a former team you want to show well and perform your best,” added Woszczynski. “They’ve been through a lot of changes from when I was there and when Chris was there, but [former owner] Ali [Mansouri is] still around the scene and around the club and one or two front office people as well, so it’s always fun to go back and see them, have them razz you a little bit, then you want to show well and show them where you’re at now.”
With the teams having split three meetings in the regular season with one win apiece and one draw, there has been little to choose between Rising FC and Orange County so far in 2018.
Now just 90 minutes away from a first trip to the USL Cup, the club that has come a very long way in a very short time believes it is ready for that next step forward.
“I think for us the biggest thing for us is achieving the goal we set out at the beginning of the year,” said Woszczynski. “Our goal from the beginning of the year with [former Head Coach] Patrice [Carteron] and as a group was to go and win everything, and now if you look at it we’re two wins away from being able to do that. We’re where we want to be and we have a lot of control over what we can do, now it’s just a question of finishing that objective we set out so long ago.”