PHOENIX – Just two wins away from their first-ever league title, the Phoenix Rising FC will host the El Paso Locomotive FC in the USL Championship Western Conference Final on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Casino Arizona Field in Scottsdale.
A victory Saturday will put Phoenix in the league final on Nov. 1 against either the Louisville City FC or the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Phoenix’s game preparation this week was overshadowed by news of the return of coach Rick Schantz and the Rising’s unprecedented decision to voluntarily forego the opportunity to host a championship match.
On Wednesday, Schantz returned from an administrative leave the team imposed on him following a Sept. 30 incident in which Rising forward Junior Flemmings directed a homophobic slur at San Diego’s openly gay player, Collin Martin. Schantz’s reaction in the heat of that moment drew backlash from those that felt he was downplaying the seriousness of the on-field incident.
On Tuesday, out of respect for the LGBTQ+ community and all those affected by the Sept. 30 incident, the club announced that if it wins the conference final, “it will voluntarily relinquish home-field advantage for the USL Championship Final.”
Schantz has apologized for his actions and reached out to Martin and the LGBTQ community, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness.
“I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting, learning, listening, improving as a human being,” Schantz said in an emotional press conference on Wednesday.
Following the midweek announcements, the Rising refocused their attention on the formidable challenge they will face when they take on El Paso.
The Locomotive comes into the conference final riding a 13-game unbeaten streak, dating back to Aug. 8. El Paso’s last defeat was against Phoenix, 3-1, at Casino Arizona Field on Aug. 1.
El Paso has one of the best defenses in the league, and that defense has performed well in the last two and a half months.
The Locomotive sit second in the league with eight clean sheets on the season, six of which have come during their current unbeaten streak – and they’ve only trailed their opponents for a total of 45 minutes in that 13-game span.
Phoenix will challenge the El Paso defense with one of the most potent offenses in the league. The Rising scored 46 goals in 16 regular-season games this year, second only to Reno 1868 FC.
Team captain Solomon Asante, 2019 league MVP, leads the league in assists and has scored in both of Phoenix’s two most recent matches. Asante also scored in the Rising’s win over El Paso in August.
Despite that success, Schantz does not discount the threat the Locomotive poses to his team’s championship aspirations.
“They’re going to be a tough team, and the last time they were here, they showed that they could play extremely well against us,” Schantz said. “I said it back then (in August), that we would see them again in the playoffs, and I knew that they were one of the best teams in the league.”
Schantz referred to Locomotive coach Mark Lowry as “one of, if not the best coaches in the league,” and attacking players Josue Aaron Gomez, Dylan Mares and Leandro Carrijó as “very very good, very dangerous.”
Offense and defense aside, the outcome of Saturday’s do-or-die match may come down to fitness and stamina.
Both Phoenix and El Paso are coming off difficult, hard-fought victories in both of their last two playoff games on Oct. 10 and Oct. 17.
El Paso defeated Tulsa in their first-round game and then took care of New Mexico last Saturday. Both of those matches were decided on penalty kicks after 30 minutes of overtime.
Phoenix eliminated Sacramento with a goal in overtime in their first-round match, then went on to beat Reno last week after overtime and penalties.
To facilitate the team’s recovery from two consecutive overtime matches, the Rising underwent lighter-than-usual physical training this week, focusing instead on “mostly tactics,” Schantz said.
If Rising central defender Damion Lowe starts on Saturday, he could provide some welcome relief for his leg-weary teammates.
Lowe has seen limited playing time since he arrived at the club on Sept. 16, due in large part to an injury he sustained in the Sept. 30 match in San Diego.
Coach Schantz did not officially announce that Lowe would start on Saturday, but he did say that the Jamaican international is “fully fit (to play) 90 minutes.”
Phoenix has amassed a 22-3-4 home record since the start of the 2019 season, giving them the highest home winning percentage in the league (79%) over the past two years.
The Rising is expected to have approximately 1,000 fans in attendance on Saturday at Casino Arizona Field, the maximum allowed under current COVID-19 safety restrictions.
The match will be televised live at 7:30 p.m., locally on CW61 Arizona and nationally on ESPN+.
The Eastern Conference Final between Louisville and Tampa Bay will kick off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
A Louisville-Phoenix matchup would provide the Rising an opportunity to avenge a 1-0 defeat they suffered to LCFC in the 2018 Championship Final.
The USLC Final match is scheduled for Sunday, Nov.1 at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.