LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Throughout Phoenix Rising FC’s run through the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs, there were numerous times when the club’s players appeared to seize the moment in front of them to give the side what it needed to find a path to victory.
From Didier Drogba’s emphatic free kick to open the scoring against the Portland Timbers 2, to Kevon Lambert’s finish against the Swope Park Rangers that proved the game-winner against the defending Western Conference champion, to Chris Cortez scoring the fastest goal in USL postseason history against Orange County, time and again the side rose to the occasion.
On Thursday night in the USL Cup against hosts Louisville City FC, the chances were there, but the breakthrough moment failed to materialize in a 1-0 defeat that saw Rising FC’s season end on a disappointing note.
While that was the case, it couldn’t keep Phoenix’s interim Head Coach Rick Schantz from being proud of all his side had accomplished through a season that had some big ups and downs.
“I told the guys together, Didier talked about keep your head up and be proud, we achieved a lot and it’s something very special for Phoenix Rising and for the state of Arizona,” said Schantz. “That’s what’s keeping me going right now is there’s a lot of people back home who love this team.”
The game played out generally as anticipated, with Louisville holding more possession and looking to weave its way through Rising FC’s defense as the visitors tried to hit on the counterattack. That approach brought Phoenix the best chance of the first half when Jason Johnson got into space and fired a shot from 25 yards that clipped the heel of Louisville defender Paco Craig and redirected toward the left corner, only for LouCity goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh to produce an outstanding save to keep the game scoreless.
Typical of a final, both sides also looked to try and take advantage of set pieces, with Drogba’s ambitious effort from almost the center circle in the fifth minute knuckling enough to give Ranjitsingh difficulty as he turned it away for a corner. That would be as close as the legendary figure would come to converting from a dead ball, though, as closer-range efforts flew off target, and instead it was Louisville that broke through from a set piece of its own as Luke Spencer capitalized when his teammates kept the play alive in the penalty area off a corner kick in the 62nd minute.
“Finals are decided by scrappy moments, and as [Rick] said Louisville’s a very good overall team,” said Rising FC goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski. “They’re solid everywhere, some great delivery off set pieces, I know they’ve scored a lot of goals off set pieces recently and unfortunately, they got another one tonight. Just couldn’t clear our lines and it was smashed through two or three people.”
Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Chances came for Phoenix to equalize, most notably a clear look at goal by second-half substitute Billy Forbes that flew well high of the target. Rising FC also had a late shout for a penalty turned down – Schantz noted “I think the [Assistent Referee] had popped his flag for offside anyway, so I think they were going to talk their way out of it.” – but when the final whistle blew it brought down the curtain on what had been, to that point, a remarkable run that began nine months ago.
“It’s been a long year,” said Woszczynski. “Started about February 1, as coach said there’ve been lots of ups and downs this year. [Former Head Coach] Patrice [Carteron] built this team that he wanted, Rick took over and did a great job halfway through the season which is tough at any level, let-alone the professional level. He’s used our guys well, got the best out of everybody and kept pushing us forward. We had a great run in the playoffs.
“Like I said, we’ve got incredible talent on this team. A different day, a few more shots hit the frame, we end up winning, but credit to Louisville, they got it done today.”
The offseason will have questions to be answered, the most pertinent of which will be Schantz’s status. Tagged as the interim Head Coach upon succeeding Patrice Carteron midseason, Schantz certainly hoped he would get the chance to lead the side permanently moving forward.
“We definitely had some valleys and had some peaks, but the resiliency of this group and the leadership is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate,” said Schantz. “I’ll do my best, I now have the model of the team that I want to build. God-willing I get to keep doing this and hopefully move forward with a lot of these guys. I’m so proud of them.”
Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
After remaining on the field to see Louisville lift the trophy following the game, the desire to return to this point for Rising FC’s players and staff is going to be a major motivation for a side that is well-poised to be a serious championship contender moving forward.
Add in the desire to reward the large contingent of fans that followed the team throughout this season – including those that made the trip to Louisville, and the estimated 2,000 fans that watched the game on big screens at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex – and the goal for 2019 within Phoenix’s camp is already clear.
“Our fans have been incredible this year,” said Woszczynski. “Everywhere we’ve went, I think our stadium has got the best atmosphere out of anywhere in the league, hands down. In the playoffs it was packed, standing room only, and then a thousand went out to OC, couple hundred flew out here, so it’s been great to see the growth in the city and the state, and we’re going to have high standards moving forward. These fans expect a lot of us and we want to give back to them. They love us, we love them, and moving onto 2019 we want to be back here and celebrating.”