SCOTTSDALE – Josue Aaron Gomez looked confident in his run-up.
The El Paso forward needed to convert his team’s fourth penalty try Saturday night to keep Phoenix Rising FC from advancing to the USL Championship Final. Instead, he inexplicably slipped and fell as he struck the ball and watched helplessly as his left-footed shot scuttled wide of the goal and to Rising goalkeeper Zac Lubin’s right.
Approximately 1,000 Rising fans went wild in the Casino Arizona Field stands as Phoenix players, coaches and staff hugged and celebrated the 4-2 penalty shootout win.
The Rising will head to Florida to try and win their first-ever championship.
After the miss, Gomez lay motionless on the turf for what seemed an eternity, holding his hands over his face in disappointment and disbelief at what just happened.
Locomotive goalkeeper Logan Ketterer attempted to console his teammate, and in a display of sportsmanship, Rising midfielder Jose Aguinaga joined him in doing so before joining his teammates for an on-field party that was only just beginning.
Phoenix Rising families scrambled to join their loved ones on the field – smiling, laughing and hugging.
Fans in the south-end supporters section danced, drummed and sang with passion and fervor not seen at Casino Arizona Field since play restarted following the COVID-19 shutdown.
The frenzied mass of on-field celebrants then gathered in front of the supporters section for an extended round of trophy-raising and picture-taking.
The Western Conference trophy went hand-to-hand, players and coaches danced the dance of champions, and smiling onlookers snapped photos.
At one point during the festivities, Rising players A.J. Cochran and Jon Bakero stood slightly to the side, arm-in-arm, calmly taking it all in, smiling and reflecting on what they had achieved.
The reality had sunk in.
Phoenix Rising FC had just advanced to the USL Championship Final for the second time in three years.
The club will now prepare to win their long-awaited, first-ever championship next Sunday at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In Phoenix’s way stands a Tampa Bay Rowdies side that advanced to the final earlier Saturday by beating Louisville City FC, 2-1, in the Eastern Conference Final in Louisville.
Much like El Paso, Tampa Bay will look to thwart Phoenix’s title hopes with one of the league’s best defenses.
The Rowdies finished the regular season second in the USLC with eight clean sheets and fewer shots allowed than any of the four teams that made it to the conference finals on Saturday.
Locomotive FC will venture home to El Paso with thoughts of what might have been.
El Paso had several chances to win it on Saturday, but were stymied again again by big saves by Lubin in both halves and during overtime – and a bit of tough luck right before the end of regulation when Dylan Mares’ free kick skipped off the top of the Rising keeper’s crossbar.
Right after that close call, in a moment of bravado, Lubin looked to the crowd behind the Rising goal and claimed, “I knew it was going over the whole time.”
Phoenix’s Jordan Schweitzer had scored in the 18th minute and Bryam Rebellon leveled the score for El Paso in the 59th before the USL Championship Western Conference Final went to penalty kicks, tied 1-1 after 30 minutes of overtime.
Rising goalkeeper Lubin dove to his right to save substitute Nick Ross’s second attempt for El Paso Locomotive FC, while Phoenix converted all four of their spot kicks to set up the critical, decisive moment of the match.
On El Paso’s fourth penalty try, Gomez couldn’t convert.
Saturday’s conference final marked three games in a row that Phoenix has played overtime, and the team looked exhausted going into the penalty kick shootout.
Rising coach Rick Schantz now faces the challenge of getting his team physically and mentally prepared for the biggest game in the club’s history, on the road against a determined Tampa Bay side that will make their first-ever appearance in a league final.
The United Soccer League Championship Final is scheduled for Sunday at 5:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.