Rising enter playoffs minus coach Rick Schantz, league-leading scorer Junior Flemmings

Phoenix will take the field without their league-leading goal scorer, Junior Flemmings, who has been suspended for the remainder of the season. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Orellana)

PHOENIX – Who would have predicted that Phoenix Rising would enter the 2020 playoffs under the surreal circumstances that have surrounded the club in the last 10 days?

Phoenix Rising FC will host Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday in the first round of the United Soccer League Championship playoffs, but will do so without the services of coach Rick Schantz and forward Junior Flemmings.

The USLC fined and suspended Flemmings for six games, and the Rising placed Schantz on administrative leave following allegations that Flemmings directed a homophobic slur at San Diego Loyal SC’s Collin Martin, an openly gay player.

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The incident occurred just before halftime in a Sept. 30 match between the Rising and the Loyal at Torero Stadium in San Diego, with the hosts leading 3-1.

The Loyal players subsequently abandoned and forfeited the match in protest – an action that eliminated San Diego from playoff contention and put Phoenix in position to claim top spot in the USLC’s Group B.

After the match, Flemmings denied the allegations. The USLC investigated the incident, then levied the fine and six-game suspension against Flemmings on Tuesday. The suspension rendered Flemmings ineligible to play for the rest of the season.

Rising general manager Bobby Dulle said, “Phoenix Rising accepts and supports the results of this investigation,” and “We will use this as an opportunity to learn, grow and be a force for change, as we work towards eradicating bias from our sport and our community.”

In the aftermath of the incident, the Rising placed Schantz on administrative leave.

Rising coach Rick Schantz, center, remains on administrative leave following the Sept. 30 incident. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Orellana)

During the Sept. 30 match, Schantz and Loyal coach Landon Donovan had a verbal exchange on the sideline in which Donovan appeared to question whether Schantz was downplaying the seriousness of Martin’s accusation against Flemmings.

TV microphones captured the exchange, which immediately drew attention on social media and garnered reactions critical of Schantz’s behavior.

Schantz has since apologized for his actions, and tweeted on Monday, “I have committed to taking specific steps that will help me recognize and change my conscious and unconscious biases, and to bring better understanding of LGBTQ issues to myself, the club, our players and the sport.”

Following the controversial incident, the Rising faced the challenge of refocusing the club’s attention on playing soccer and winning its first ever USLC title.

Just prior to last Saturday’s home match against LA Galaxy II, the Rising appointed assistant coach Blair Gavin as interim head coach in Schantz’s absence.

On the field, the club rebounded by beating LA 4-1, clinching top spot in Group B and earning home-field advantage for the Rising’s first-round playoff game versus Sacramento Republic FC.

The do-or-die game is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m at Casino Arizona Field in Scottsdale and will be broadcast live, nationally on ESPN+ and locally on CW61 Arizona.

In Flemmings’ absence, scoring duties last Saturday fell to Santi Moar, A.J. Cochran and Sam Stanton (who scored twice and earned USLC Team of the Week honors).

Without their team’s top goal scorer on Saturday, Kevon Lambert, left, and Joey Farrell may have to provide more defensive cover than usual. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Orellana)

Team captain Solomon Asante provided an assist and created the opportunity for the Rising’s final goal in the 57th minute, when his left-footed shot caromed off the post and fell to Stanton to score his second.

The Rising will look to Asante again this Saturday as the team seeks ways to compensate for the loss of Flemmings’ goal production. Flemmings’ 14 goals led the USLC in scoring this year and earned him the league’s Golden Boot award.

Asante’s numbers this season have not quite matched his stellar MVP numbers from 2019, when he scored 22 goals and notched 17 assists in 34 appearances. Still, the Ghanaian midfielder chipped in with six goals and a league-leading nine assists in this year’s shortened 16-game regular season.

Without Flemmings in the lineup, forward Rufat Dadashov could very well be the player to score the goals Phoenix will need to advance to the next round of playoffs – the USLC Western Conference Semifinals.

Dadashov scored eight goals for Phoenix during the 2020 regular season, second on the club only to Flemmings.

If past results are any indicator, Phoenix may find it difficult to find the back of the net against Sacramento on Saturday.

The Rising have scored only twice in their last five regular-season matchups with the Republic, dating back to Sept. 2017.

Phoenix failed to score in three of those five matches while recording one win, two draws and two losses.

If Saturday’s contest turns into a defensive battle, the Rising could find themselves in need of the services of defensive midfielder Kevon Lambert and central defender Damion Lowe, both of whom did not play in Phoenix’s last match against LA Galaxy II.

Newly acquired defender Damion Lowe has struggled with injury recently, but is expected to be available for Saturday’s match. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising)

Lowe went off injured in the Rising’s Sept. 30 match in San Diego and has not played since.

Gavin announced on Wednesday that both Lowe and Lambert are eligible to play Saturday, but did not specifically name either player to the Rising’s starting lineup.

Saturday’s match will mark seven consecutive postseason appearances for Sacramento as the club looks to recapture the USLC title which it won for the first and only time in 2014.

Phoenix still has a viable route to gain home-field advantage throughout the 2020 playoffs, including the USL Championship Final match scheduled for Nov. 1.

If LA Galaxy II beats Reno 1868 FC on Saturday and Phoenix beats Sacramento, the Rising would become the league’s top remaining seed and gain home-field advantage for the duration of the season.

If both Reno and Phoenix win Saturday, Phoenix would then play Reno on the road in the Western Conference Semifinals. A Rising victory over Reno in the semis would give Phoenix home-field advantage from that point forward.

Despite the controversy and distractions in the last week, and regardless of how home-field advantage might play out, Phoenix maintains realistic hopes of winning its first ever USL Championship this year.

This is the Rising’s fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and they fell just short of capturing the title in 2018 when they lost to Louisville in the Championship Final.

The USLC’s website currently lists Phoenix Rising FC as “co-favorite alongside Louisville City FC to lift the trophy this year.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Bradley James expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. James enjoys covering baseball, football and auto racing and is working to improve his skills in Spanish and Portuguese.