PHOENIX – The conclusion of Phoenix Rising FC’s recent match versus San Diego Loyal SC produced the strangest 20 minutes of play most soccer fans will ever likely see, and the match result (a 3-2 Rising loss) shook the United Soccer League Championship playoff picture.
The bizarre run of play on Saturday night started in the 79th minute when two San Diego defenders accidentally collided with their own goalkeeper, Jon Kempin, who was then subbed off with an apparent injury to the groin area. It ended 20 action-packed minutes later, with Phoenix Rising players and fans shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering what just happened.
During the tumultuous 20-minute span, spectators saw two goals disallowed, a bizarre drop-ball restart, a glaring error by San Diego’s backup goalkeeper, one legitimate goal scored, 10 minutes of time added on and a red card ejection.
The drama continued after the final whistle, with a San Diego Loyal team photographer allegedly getting into a heated exchange with Rising fans.
The referees capped the strange night off in a most unusual way – by sending a hand-written note to reporters explaining the referees’ odd decision on the most controversial play of the game.
It occurred immediately after the Kempin injury and replacement by backup goalkeeper Jake Fenlason.
Down 3-1 in the 83rd minute, Phoenix took a free kick near midfield which inadvertently struck the referee and fell to a Rising player.
Phoenix then moved the ball down the right flank and, 15 seconds after the free kick, Rising forward Rufat Dadashaov headed home a cross by Joey Calistri to make the score 3-2, apparently.
Dadashov’s header crossed San Diego’s goal line by a scant 2 feet, never touched the back of the net and was immediately cleared by a Loyal defender. The referee signaled that a Rising goal had been scored.
In the Casino Arizona Field supporters section, fans popped canisters of red smoke. The chanting, singing and drumming in the south end reached a crescendo.
The Rising players quickly celebrated the goal and then scrambled back to their side of the field to restart play – hoping to score a critical third, equalizing goal before time ran out.
Inexplicably, the referee then grabbed the ball, placed it down near the edge of the center circle and restarted play. No goal.
Most of the 1,000 fans in attendance could not comprehend what happened, and the rationale for the referee’s decision did not become clear until well after the final whistle blew.
Many thought the referee had disallowed the goal because he judged the ball had not completely crossed San Diego’s goal line – but that judgment would have been in error, and the fans knew it.
Video replay confirmed the ball clearly crossed the goal line before the Loyal defender got a foot to it.
Shouts of “There’s no way!” and “You gotta be kidding me!” filled the night air.
Play continued. Five minutes later, San Diego’s replacement goalkeeper Fenlason flapped at a Santi Moar cross and Rising forward Junior Flemmings headed home to make the score 3-2.
The fans’ shouts then turned to “We got robbed!” and “It should be 3-3!”
Still down a goal, Phoenix pressed hard for an equalizer that never came.
San Diego’s Grant Stoneman was sent off, seven minutes into stoppage time in the 97th minute after receiving a second yellow card for a foul on Flemmings.
When the final whistle blew after 10 minutes of stoppage time, several Loyal players dropped to the turf exhausted and relieved to have held on for the win.
The 3-2 victory kept the Loyal’s thin playoff hopes alive, catapulting them from fourth place to second in the USL Championship’s Group B standings. It also capped a remarkable month-long turnaround for San Diego.
On August 22, the Loyal languished in fourth place in Group B, seven points adrift of first place Phoenix. Hardly anyone outside San Diego expected the club to factor in the late-season USLC playoff chase.
The Loyal then went on a five-game unbeaten run, drawing two games and winning three – the three victories coming against the top three teams in Group B: LA Galaxy II, Orange County SC and now Phoenix.
When the dust finally settled Saturday night and the USLC standings were updated, the impact of the result became clear. Group B had turned into a four-way dogfight with Phoenix still holding first place, separated from fourth-place Orange County by a mere five points.
The top two teams in the group will advance to the playoffs – and with such a tight cluster of teams still in playoff contention, Group B could very well be decided on the last day of the regular season, October 3.
Rising coach Rick Schantz now looks to prepare his team for its critical three remaining regular-season matches, any of which could prove decisive in determining whether the Rising finish atop Group B or crash out of the playoffs altogether.
In his weekly conference call Tuesday, Schantz admitted that Saturday’s loss affected his players more than usual.
Schantz remarked that usually the Rising’s Monday training sessions are quite lively, but on this occasion “you could sense that something was off. I think they were still very angry and upset about it,” referring not only to the loss, but also the referee’s puzzling decision.
“After the game I asked (the referee) about it and I told him that there was a million things he could have done differently, and the way he handled it was the worst possible scenario,” Schantz said.
The Rising coach also mentioned the unusual post-game note the referees issued.
“Usually somebody does that when they feel they have to explain something they did wrong,” Schantz said.
The handwritten note stated: “The referee was struck by the ball. According to Law 9, ‘The ball is out of play … when it touches a match official, remains on the field of play and a team starts a promising attack or the ball goes directly into the goal.’ Play is restarted with a dropped by where it occurred according to the laws of the game, to the team that had possession.”
At long last, the teams, fans and reporters had some clarity about the ref’s odd decision – but it still didn’t explain why the ref waited until after Phoenix scored to execute the drop ball.
The unnecessary delay and ensuing negation of the Rising goal rankled the fans more than anything else.
Rising superfan Monica McPherson texted Sunday, “That ref was so bad to do it the way he did it.”
After taking time to reflect, Rising goalkeeper Eric Dick acknowledged that, “At the end of the day, the ref made the right call, because that’s the rule.”
Schantz concurred with Dick, stating, “By the letter of the law, if it hits the referee, that’s the end of the play.”
By Monday evening, the Rising had gotten back to business as usual, with music playing as the team trained with energy and focus on the next critical upcoming match.
“I gotta move on to Orange County,” Schantz said.
Phoenix will face Orange County SC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Casino Arizona Field in Scottsdale. The match will be televised live, locally on ABC15 Arizona and CW61 Arizona, and nationally on ESPN+.
A Rising victory Saturday would do a lot to settle the USLC playoff picture, guaranteeing Phoenix a playoff spot and leaving only LA Galaxy II in contention to top Phoenix as Group B champions.
Whoever wins Group B will enjoy home-field advantage for the first round of the USL Championship playoffs starting October 9.
Phoenix will play its final two regular-season games against San Diego (Wednesday, away) and LA (Oct. 3, home).
Rising goalkeeper Zac Lubin already anticipates the Wednesday match as an opportunity to exact some revenge for last Saturday’s loss.
“Can’t wait. I wish we were playing them (San Diego) this weekend,” Lubin said. “We’re gonna go in with a chip on our shoulder and we’re gonna bring the energy like they brought, and we’ll give them a fight and claim our top spot.”