IRVINE, Calif. – Powered by goals from Chris Cortez and Didier Drogba, No. 3-seed Phoenix Rising FC claimed the Western Conference Championship in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 victory against No. 1-seed Orange County SC before a crowd of 5,189 fans at Champions Soccer Stadium, and set up a trip to face Eastern Conference Champions Louisville City FC for the 2018 USL Cup on Thursday night.
Cortez’s second goal of the postseason gave Phoenix an early lead, and Drogba appeared to have put the game out of reach with 17 minutes to go as he notched his fourth goal in as many career USL Cup Playoffs contests. Orange County hit back through Koji Hashimoto with eight minutes remaining, but a final save deep in stoppage time by Phoenix goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski on a well-hit finish by Hashimoto ensured Rising FC’s victory and the first silverware in the club’s history.
It took just 66 seconds for Phoenix to take the lead as a quick one-two in midfield between Kevon Lambert and Drogba allowed Lambert to slide the ball into the left channel for Cortez as he broke forward. The veteran forward fired a rising finish into the right corner for his second goal of the postseason and the fastest goal in USL Cup Playoffs history.
Orange County took more time to settle into the game, and its first real look at goal didn’t arrive until the 11th minute when Thomas Enevoldsen delivered a cross from the right that Michael Seaton headed wide of the left post. The hosts continued to grow as the first half progressed, and a cross by Aodhan Quinn in 24th minute caused a nervous moment in the Phoenix defense that saw defender Tristan Blackmon head over his crossbar after he and Woszczynski didn’t seem quite on the same page.
While OCSC established more possession, Phoenix almost grabbed a second goal nine minutes before halftime as Cortez sprang Solomon Asante forward into the right corner on a counterattack. The Ghanaian held up possession which allowed Cortez to break in for a back-post cross that resulted in a diving header that went just wide of the right post.
Orange County’s best passage of the first half came two minutes before the break as a sustained period of pressure opened up a chance for Quinn on the left side of the penalty area, but his chipped finish was swatted aside by Woszczynski before Kevin Alston’s follow-up effort from the right side was blocked away to safety by Amadou Dia as Phoenix held its lead until the halftime break.
Drogba had the first look on goal in the second half with a long-range free kick that was smothered by Orange County goalkeeper Andre Rawls, but the pattern of Orange County pressure and Phoenix resiliency soon returned as the hosts patiently tried to find a way through for an equalizer. Both Michael Seaton and Enevoldsen had shots blocked in quick succession in the 55th minute, with the ensuing corner deflecting goalward before being claimed by Woszczynski.
Another free kick by Drogba that dipped and bounced just before it reached Rawls from 35 yards gave the Orange County goalkeeper more difficulty two minutes later as he bobbled the effort before recovering and denying a chance to an onrushing Cortez on the rebound. Asante then flashed a shot just wide of the left post from the top of the penalty area in the 65th minute as the visitors tried to bolster their advantage.
With 17 minutes to go the insurance goal arrived as Drogba struck for the third time this postseason. A through-ball by Asante played Jason Johnson into the right side of the penalty area. Rawls anticipated the pass and denied Johnson’s first-time shot, but the ball caromed to Drogba at the top of the penalty area. The former Ivory Coast international’s first shot was blocked by OCSC defender Alex Crognale, but his second effort found the net to put Rising FC firmly in control.
Orange County ensured there would be a big finish, however, as it broke through Phoenix’s defenses with eight minutes to go when a cross from the left by Quinn was nodded goalward by Crognale and allowed Hashimoto to steal in for a close-range finish from inside the six-yard area.
Rising FC almost restored its two-goal advantage immediately when Billy Forbes’ effort toward the right corner was denied by Rawls, but then Orange County went in search of an equalizer. Quinn had a low, first-time shot from 20 yards smothered by Woszczynski with four minutes remaining, but as hard as OCSC pushed, Rising FC found answers defensively. One last chance fell to Hashimoto in eighth minute of stoppage time after a free kick by Quinn from the right had pinballed around the penalty area, but Woszczynski was sure-handed in his save on the volleyed effort from 14 yards, denying the hosts and sending Phoenix on to the final game of the season.
2’ – PHX – Chris Cortez (Kevon Lambert)
73’ – PHX – Didier Drogba
82’ – OC – Koji Hashimoto
1. Phoenix Rising FC claimed its first silverware in club history in the Western Conference Championship and booked its place against Louisville City FC in the 2018 USL Cup thanks to the fastest goal in USL Cup Playoffs history by Chris Cortez and another strong defensive display that saw the visitors contain Orange County SC’s attacking standouts throughout and hold on late after a late goal produced a grandstand finish. Cortez’s strike after 66 seconds set the game up ideally for the visitors, who were then able to selectively press but more often absorb pressure and counterattack, playing to their strengths as the speed of Solomon Asante came to the fore, eventually helping set up Didier Drogba’s third goal of the postseason for the eventual game-winner.
2. Rising FC’s defense was undone with eight minutes to go, but for almost all the game before and after Koji Hashimoto’s goal for the hosts, the visitors were impressive in their work-rate that held the Orange County trio of Aodhan Quinn, Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Seaton off the scoresheet on the night. Both Enevoldsen and Seaton were held without a shot on goal, while Quinn didn’t register a key pass during the game, going just 2 of 12 on crosses for the contest. Phoenix’s defense sacrificed for the cause as Joe Farrell and Collin Fernandez each recorded two of the side’s eight blocked shots in another stellar display by the back line and midfield for Rising FC.
3. The goal for Rising FC this postseason has been to help send legendary forward Didier Drogba out on a high with one final trophy, but the 40-year-old has time and again come through for his side as they have come through for him. His third goal in as many games this postseason proved essential as an insurance marker before Orange County’s late response, and his mental sharpness to pull off moves that can still make you shake your head at their beauty is something to behold. Louisville City FC’s defense will be another test for Phoenix’s potent attack in the 2018 USL Cup, but it’s a matchup that’s going to be a must-see as the legendary forward looks to make his mark in one last final.
USLSoccer.com Man of the Match
Solomon Asante, Phoenix Rising FC – Asante put in an outstanding shift as an outlet for Phoenix’s defense and was clean in possession completing 21 of 22 passes and creating three chances, including that which led to Didier Drogba’s goal with 17 minutes to go.
2018 USL Cup – Phoenix Rising FC at Louisville City FC, Thursday, Nov. 8, 8 p.m. ET, Lynn Stadium
Orange County SC – End of Season