SCOTTSDALE – After a record-breaking regular season, Phoenix Rising FC is preparing for the next obstacle heading into the USL Championship Playoffs.
“It is a new season,” coach Rick Schantz said. “We have to refocus, and the guys have had some player meetings and we have had some staff and owner meetings to remind everyone that this was a fantastic season, but now we start over.”
Rising FC finished with a United Soccer League record in wins (24), points (78) and goal differential (+53) this season. Phoenix also went on a 20-match winning streak, which is a USL, an American professional soccer and an Arizona professional sports record.
Rising FC ran away with the regular season title and will have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Phoenix will start its postseason run Saturday night against eighth-seeded Austin Bold FC at Casino Arizona Field.
“All along the goal this season was to win the No. 1 seed, so if hopefully that we do make it to the final, it would be (in Phoenix),” Schantz said. “A couple of our goals have been crossed off and we just move on to the next, so there are still two trophies yet to win and that is all that we are concerned about.”
Although Rising FC had stellar performers throughout the lineup this season, Solomon Asante was a highlight.
Asante finished the regular season with a league-high 22 goals and league-record 17 assists, which makes him a frontrunner to be named the USL MVP this season.
“I think we did well as a team … and everything was good and went perfectly for us,” Asante said when asked about possibly winning the Golden Boot and setting the assist record. “Individually, I did my part.”
As he reflected on every regular season accolade, Asante acknowledged that it isn’t easy to accomplish what Phoenix did this season.
Rising FC clinched the best record a few weeks before the final regular season match, but the USL decided to present the trophy after the finale at Casino Arizona Field. As the team celebrated on the pitch with fans, Asante said he couldn’t put into words what it meant to hold the trophy.
“It was neat to let the players have their moment with the fans on the home pitch,” Schantz said. “(But it was) enjoy the moment and get back to work … we have more business to do.”
When asked about what Rising FC can use from last season’s run that ended with a 1-0 loss in the USL Championship Final, Schantz said the team has already implemented a plan.
He talked with former Rising FC player and soccer legend Didier Drogba. Those talks revolved around “at this point in the year, if you want something bad enough, what are you going to sacrifice for it?”
“They all had to think about something that they would sacrifice … because (in the playoffs), you are going to have to sacrifice for your teammates for 90-plus minutes,” Schantz said.
With the USL Playoffs as a single-elimination format, Asante realizes the importance and knows that this potentially could be the last match this season.
“Since anything can happen, we are attacking every game extremely serious,” Asante said. “Absolutely everything is serious now because if you lose one game, then you are (done).”
Rising FC has sold out 20 straight matches at Casino Arizona Field. In preparation for the postseason run, fans decided to hold a chant practice there on Thursday night.
Midway through fan-chant practice, some Rising FC players, including Joey Calistri, Jon Bakero, James Musa and Carl Woszczynski, joined in on the chants and brought pizza to thank the fans.
“I can tell you that there are not many teams in the USL that have this going on on a weeknight getting ready for a playoff game, so I think that says it all,” Calistri said. “But being able to play our playoff games here, and obviously you are just worried about the first one, but having that home-field advantage is huge with fans like this.”