The No. 3 seed Phoenix Rising FC defeated the No. 7 seed Swope Park Rangers 4-2 Friday, Oct. 26 in front of yet another all-time record crowd of 7,707.
The Western Conference semifinals match was Phoenix’s second ever home playoff game that was a result of Swope Park’s upset win over the No. 2 seed Sacramento Republic in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
It was a tale of two halves within the first half, as the first 20 minutes of the game only saw three total shots by both teams. However, the following 15 minutes consisted of four goals that left the halftime score-line tied at 2-2.
“I was a little frustrated the first 15 minutes,” said Rising Manager Rick Schantz.
“I don’t think the fans appreciated our tactics. It was really boring and quiet, so I told the players actually at halftime–I said, ‘Can you guys start raising your hands to get these people out of their seats?’ because when they stand up and they scream and yell, the energy of our players is unbelievable.”
In the 21st minute, Rising captain and player-owner Didier Drogba swung a ball in off a set-piece that was flicked on toward goal by forward Jason Johnson, but directly at the Swope Park keeper Eric Dick.
In the 22nd minute, Johnson took an Amadou Dia pass at the top of the box that resulted in a left-footed strike that went past the diving Swope keeper for the first goal of the game to give the Rising a 1-0 lead.
Four minutes later, Swope Park tied the game at 1-1 after a cross deflected off of a Rising defender and pinballed around the box, eventually bouncing off of Rangers forward Tyler Blackwood and into the back of the net.
“That’s just the game,” said Rising defender Saad Abdul-Salaam. “There are times the ball might bounce unluckily and that’s what happened on the first goal, but we rebounded strong from it for the rest of the game.”
Following a great reaction save by Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski, another Rangers cross from just outside the side of the box was headed home by Swope Park forward Hadji Barry to give Swope a 2-1 lead in the 34th minute of the game.
Three minutes later, Drogba swung in a cross of his own from the side of the box that met the swinging foot of forward Chris Cortez that whistled passed the Swope keeper to tie the game at 2-2.
Cortez now has 30 career goals for the club, making him Phoenix Rising’s all-time leading goal scorer.
“I was thinking about tying the game and eventually winning it,” said Cortez. “That’s all we really cared about. If I break a club-record, but we got knocked out in the semis, who’s going to really remember that? I’d much rather win a championship than anything else.”
Three minutes into the second half, a Johnson cross found the feet of midfielder Kevon Lambert at the top of the box, who’s right-footed strike deflected off of a Swope Park defender and onto the post before crossing the goal-line for the fifth goal of the game to give Phoenix a 3-2 lead.
“I can’t wait to look at (Colin) Fernandez’s and Lambert’s numbers because I’m sure those guys ran around 11 kilometers,” said Schantz. “That’s what I asked them: to suffer and sacrifice for the team and when they do that, we’re pretty good.”
In the final minute of the game, Rising vice-captain Soloman Asante lead a three-on-one attack that resulted in a Drogba tap-in to bring the game its final score-line of 4-2.
“It’s just another one down,” said Schantz. “We still have two more to go.”
Phoenix Rising FC awaits the winner of the number one seeded Orange County SC and the number five seeded Reno 1868 FC.
An Orange County win would require the Rising to travel Irvine for the Western Conference final, while a Reno victory would result in a third ever Rising home playoff game.