Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
After reaching the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in 2017, the offseason moves Phoenix Rising FC made to bolster an already-strong squad only added to the expectations that the side would be a major challenger for the USL Cup in 2018.
But while 2018 has proved a historic year on and off the field for the club as record crowds filled the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex throughout the regular season and USL Cup Playoffs, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The midseason departure of Head Coach Patrice Carteron to take the reins at former FIFA Club World Cup participant Al Ahly saw Rick Schantz step up as interim Head Coach for a second time, on this occasion leading the side for the remainder of the campaign.
There were ups and downs on the field as well that saw the side drop out of contention for top spot in the Western Conference and down to third position in the final reckoning after a winless final week of the regular season. That form has been turned upside down this postseason, though, with the side now in possession of its first silverware and a chance to claim the USL Cup on Thursday night.
Ahead of Rising FC’s clash with Louisville City FC, here are five games that have defined the club’s season.
Phoenix’s first meeting in 2018 with the Swope Park Rangers – who had eliminated Rising FC from the postseason the previous fall – was another classic between the clubs that saw the lead change hands before Phoenix’s resiliency saw it rebound to earn a home point after the Rangers had momentarily stunned the home crowd. Rising FC took the lead in the 66th minute when Billy Forbes redirected home a low cross by Solomon Asante for his first goal in Phoenix colors, but just three minutes later the Rangers responded when Kharlton Belmar headed home a corner kick by Felipe Hernandez from close range.
Belmar then scored what looked to be the game-winner with two minutes to go with a powerful solo effort that saw him drive through the middle of the Phoenix defense and fire home a low finish to the left corner, briefly silencing the sellout crowd on hand. As it would on other occasions during the season, however, Rising FC produced a response in the final minute when Asante rifled home a low finish from 25 yards into the left corner of the net to salvage a point and show off the resiliency that would be a hallmark for Phoenix regularly during the season.
It will forever be known as the game that led to the creation of “Drogba’s Magic Water”, but Phoenix’s comeback victory against a talented Galaxy II side also illustrated the ability the side had to produce when the chips were down. After 15-year-old Los Dos prodigy Efrain Alvarez had given the visitors the lead with a thunderous strike from 25 yards out, Phoenix responded through Jason Johnson in the 21st minute, but five minutes later LA regained the lead through U.S. U-20 National Team midfielder Ulysses Llanez before Hugo Arellano made it a two-goal lead for the visitors five minutes before halftime.
Rising FC responded early in the second half through Alessandro Riggi, but the game’s defining moment arrived with 19 minutes to go. Prior to taking a corner kick from the left side, Didier Drogba grabbed a swig of water from a sideline table, and told the fans sitting at it they were going to score from the set piece. The legendary forward’s delivery picked out the near-post run of Jason Johnson, whose header tied the game and set off a water-filled celebration near the corner flag. Drogba’s goal from the penalty spot in the 78th minute then gave Phoenix its first lead of the night and provided the perfect ending to a story that will stay in Rising FC’s history forever.
The news that arrived on June 12 that Head Coach Patrice Carteron was leaving Rising FC to take over Egyptian club Al Ahly was one that while not surprising, left a question of what direction the club’s season would take after a strong opening three months. Having produced a record of 22 wins, seven defeats and 12 draws in his time at the club, Carteron’s experience had been a major asset as Rising FC drove toward establishing its place among the USL’s elite clubs.
Just as he had following the departure of Frank Yallop the previous year, Rick Schantz was the man tasked with stepping into the breach, and with an emphatic victory the night after the announcement of Carteron’s departure, the coach who had previously produced success at FC Tucson in USL League Two showed that he was going to be more than up to the task of leading Phoenix toward a championship. A pair of goals by Jason Johnson – one in either half – and tallies by Joe Farrell and Solomon Asante highlighted a big showing by the hosts as they racked up 11 shots on goal and began Schantz’s second stint in the spotlight in the manner it aimed to continue.
Squaring off with one of its chief rivals for first place in the Western Conference, Phoenix had to produce a resilient display to claim victory against Orange County SC as goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski came to the fore for the ten-men hosts at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex. Woszczynski matched his season-high with eight saves to post a shutout in arguably his best performance of the season.
Rising FC had gotten out to an ideal start in the 13th minute when Kevaughn Lambert’s angled chip into the penalty area was met on the half-volley by Chris Cortez with a sliding finish that put the hosts ahead, part of a 6-3 shot advantage Phoenix built over the opening 35 minutes. The game tilted in Orange County’s favor at that point, however, as Phoenix defender Kody Wakasa was sent off, giving the visitors the chance to take control of the game. OCSC outshot its hosts 15-4 the rest of the way, but Woszczynski came up big when it mattered most in the second half with saves to deny Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Seaton. Woszczynski’s final save of the game in the second minute of stoppage time might have been his best as he turned Alex Crognale’s header just wide of the left post to preserve the shutout and an important victory for Phoenix.
Orange County returned to Phoenix in August and scored a victory that helped tilt the battle for first place in the Western Conference in its favor, which meant that when the two sides met for the fourth time in the 2018 campaign for the Western Conference Championship, it was at OCSC’s home of Champions Soccer Stadium. But backed by seven busloads of fans laid on by the club that created a raucous atmosphere within the sellout crowd, Phoenix ensured it would be the last team standing in the Western Conference with a disciplined performance that saw it close down Orange County’s attack while taking advantage of its chances.
Phoenix, in fact, capitalized on its first chance of the game as Chris Cortez opened the scoring after just 66 seconds, the fastest goal in USL Cup Playoffs history. That set up the visitors perfectly to execute a strategy that saw the side absorb pressure and look to break quickly on the counterattack. Orange County had 70 percent of possession in the first half, but only produced one shot on goal before the break and ended with only four shots on goal overall from its 19 efforts as Phoenix’s defensive unit blocked eight shots. When Didier Drogba added an insurance marker in the 73rd minute, it felt as though that was going to decide the contest, but Orange County’s Koji Hashimoto set up a big finish by scoring with eight minutes to go. With the pressure on in the game’s final minutes, Phoenix was able to keep the trio of Thomas Enevoldsen, Michael Seaton and Aodhan Quinn – who had combined for 47 goals and 32 assists over the regular season and postseason – off the scoresheet and ensure their first silverware in club history.