Following the Phoenix Rising FC’s two biggest wins in the first two rounds of the USL Cup Playoffs, the team is now facing one of its most difficult challenges ever.
The No. 3 seed Rising are traveling to play the top seed Orange County SC on Saturday in the Western Conference final. The winner advances to the league’s championship match on Thursday, a game the Rising could host.
“It’s one of these games where if you’re not focused 100 percent then (Orange County) can catch you,” Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “And even if you are focused they still have enough talent to break you down.”
The Rising and Orange County have faced off three times this year with no team showing an edge over the other.
In the first game of the season, the Rising were winning 1-0 all the way until the 90th minute when Alex Crognale scored the equalizing goal. The game ended in a 1-1 draw.
In the second matchup, the Rising won 1-0 thanks to a Chris Cortez goal while also playing most of the game down one player because of a red card on Kody Wakassa.
In the third and final matchup of the regular season, the Rising were getting blown out 4-0 nearly halfway through the second half but almost pulled off an incredible comeback. Phoenix scored three goals in the final 23 minutes of play and came up just short of a draw.
“That was a big game for us because it showed the fight and the spirit our team had and that we weren’t willing to quit,” Schantz said. “It was also a big moment for me because I told the team that we weren’t going to stand for that.”
This fourth game between the two teams will essentially be a tiebreaker for the two teams that ended up 1-1-1 with a zero goal difference in their regular season matches.
“It’s kind of a grudge match and obviously it’s the biggest one of the year,” Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said. “I think the guys will be up for it.”
For Phoenix’s first two playoff games, they had the support of over 7,000 fans and broke home attendance records on back-to-back weeks. Now, the Rising are traveling. The team has rented buses for fans to travel to the game in Orange County.
“I think it’s so cool,” Schantz said. “I just had this vision in my head the other night of like this, rows and rows of buses and an overhead view of all these buses and Phoenix Rising flags waving. I told someone earlier it reminds me a lot of Europe where you see 20 (to) 30,000 fans travelling to an away game.”
While it won’t by 20,000, it’s still going to be an impressive contingent heading west. Rising Vice President tweeted that the team will have seven buses, each with 100 fans, heading to the match.
Schantz and the players seem confident that the amount of fans riding the buses, traveling and showing support will make this away playoff game feel like it was right at home.
“Percentage-based, I think (Orange County) will have half their stadium filled with Phoenix Rising fans so that’s pretty cool,” Schantz said.
Schantz said the team understands that they are playing not only for themselves but also for the fans in the community.
“We cannot let them down,” Phoenix Rising midfielder Solomon Asante said.
Phoenix Rising FC (19-9-6) vs Orange County (20-8-6)
When: 7:30 p.m. | USL playoff schedule | Rising schedule | USL final standings
Where: Championship Soccer Stadium
TV: YurView Cox channel 4