Phoenix Rising FC wins USL Championship’s Western Conference title
PHOENIX – For a third consecutive postseason contest, Phoenix Rising FC needed extra time.
For a second, they needed a penalty shootout.
But thanks to goalkeeper Zac Lubin’s key early save the hosts claimed the second USL Championship Western Conference title in its history after defeating El Paso Locomotive FC 4-2 from the spot after the sides had played to a 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field.
After the side had exchanged goals to open the shootout, Phoenix’s Corey Whelan stepped up and converted to open the second round with a pinpoint finish to the top-right corner of the net past the outstretched arm of El Paso goalkeeper Logan Ketterer, who twice already this postseason had helped earn his side shootout victories.
Locomotive FC’s Nick Ross then stepped up and so did Lubin. A low shot to the left corner was parried away by the Phoenix goalkeeper, adding to the key saves he made throughout the contest. After another pair of made shots for either side, Phoenix’s Santi Moar turned the screw tighter for the hosts, meaning Josue Aaron Gomez had to score to send the shootout to a fifth round. He couldn’t, sending his finish wide, starting the celebration for Rising FC’s players, staff and fans.
The defeat was Locomotive FC’s second in a row in the Western Conference Final that came in heartbreaking fashion for El Paso, which had been defeated late in extra time in the 2019 postseason by Real Monarchs SLC. The visitors had rallied back from a halftime deficit impressively against Phoenix, and had almost decided the contest with the final kick of second-half stoppage time as they were awarded a free kick just outside the top-left edge of the penalty area. Dylan Mares’ shot to the top-right corner appeared to have Lubin beaten, but it clipped the crossbar and went behind for a goal kick.
Reprieved, Phoenix looked to raise the tempo to start the first extra time period and in the 94th minute Solomon Asante fired a shot from 30 yards toward the right corner that was parried away by Ketterer. Rising FC threatened again three minutes later as Rufat Dadashov pulled off a beautiful piece of skill to control in the left side of the penalty area and slip a pass back to Jon Bakero, whose shot was dragged wide of the right post. Dadashov then went close in the 105th minute as he got on the end of a cross from the left by Moar but sent his header just over the crossbar.
Phoenix continued to create the better chances in the second period of extra time as it looked to decide game, with Asante having a golden opportunity after a clever passing movement capped by Bakero’s through-ball that was denied by Ketterer in the 112th minute before being cleared by Yuma. Ketterer then had to make a save on a redirection on his own goal by Yuma off a curling ball into the penalty from the right moments later, and in the 115th minute Dadashov was ruled offside as he put the ball into the back of the net after drifting behind the El Paso back line, but no goal arrived as the game headed to a shootout.
Rising FC had also begun the game as it played much of extra time as it produced a pair of early corners. El Paso, though, had the first good look on goal in the ninth minute as Gomez made a clever pivot receiving a pass in the left side of the penalty area, only to have his shot blocked by Rising FC’s Corey Whelan. The ball caromed to Macauley King at the top of the penalty area, but his first-time shot bounced wide of the right spot.
Gomez had another chance to put the visitors ahead in the 15th minute as he broke onto a clever reverse pass from the left side of the penalty area by Leandro Carrijo, but Lubin made the first of five saves on the night as he got enough of the shot as he came off his line that allowed him to gather at the second attempt on an excellent initial save.
Lubin’s denial proved all the more crucial three minutes later as Phoenix struck to take the lead. Making only his fifth start of the campaign for the hosts, Jordan Schweitzer picked up possession from Moar in the left channel and ripped a fierce shot that clipped a defender and took a wicked deflection that saw it loop over Ketterer and clip the crossbar before bouncing over the line and back into the roof of the net.
El Paso controlled most of the possession after going behind, but Phoenix did well to dictate the areas the game was played in as Locomotive FC found it difficult to create any more clear-cut chances before halftime. Instead, Phoenix almost grabbed a second goal seconds before the break as after a long-range effort by Sam Stanton was deflected behind for a corner kick the near-post delivery from the right by Asante found Kevon Lambert, whose header rang the crossbar and bounced out allowing El Paso to clear.
Locomotive FC tried to gain a greater foothold in the game to start the second half and almost produced an equalizer in the 55th minute as Chapa Herrera broke into the penalty area before laying a pass to his left for a first-time shot by Gomez, but Lubin made a one-handed save to keep the finish out of the net. Four minutes later, however, a low cross from the left by Eder Borelli toward the penalty spot wasn’t controlled by either Carrijo or a Rising FC defender and bounced free which allowed Bryam Rebellon to blister home a first-time finish into the top-left corner of the net to level.
The goal seemed to add to El Paso’s rising confidence, and the visitors continued to control the tempo of the game and put pressure on Phoenix as the second half went on. With 13 minutes to go Lubin again had to come up with a crucial save as Richie Russell picked out a slide-rule pass through the back line that came to Gomez, only for his chance to be denied again.
Phoenix almost had a chance to grab the lead late in regulation as a cross from the left was flicked on awkwardly by a defender and straight to Dadashov, but the Azerbaijani international was crowded out before he could fire a shot and the visitors hustled the ball away to safety. The visitors then went even closer on Mares’ opportunity at the close of regulation before Phoenix wrested back control of the game in the additional 30 minutes.
But with the game left undecided as the final whistle blew, it was left to a test of nerve and skill to decide it. Lubin’s nerve held strongest, and Phoenix earned its second trip to the USL Championship Final.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Zac Lubin, Phoenix Rising FC – Lubin came up with a five-save performance during the game before recording the key stop in the penalty shootout to send Phoenix to its second Conference Title.