From pandemic to national scrutiny, Rising head to USL Championship after challenging season

A.J. Cochran, left, and Jon Bakero reflect on their team’s achievement and the challenge ahead. (Photo by Aaron Bradley James/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – After a roller coaster season, Phoenix Rising FC will battle the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Sunday in the hope of winning its first USL title.

Reaching the championship game in St. Petersburg, Florida, was not an easy path for the Rising, who advanced by defeating El Paso 4-2 in penalty kicks on Saturday.

From suspensions to national scrutiny to a pandemic, the 2020 season had it all.

“Tenacity says a hell of a lot about their leadership and the way they handle adversity,” coach Rick Schantz said.

To appreciate the team’s timeline means to start at the 2018 season when star player Didier Drogba and his Rising teammates seemed to be legitimate contenders for the title. They made it to the USL Championship final in Louisville but lost, 1-0.

The Rising responded in successful fashion, posting the greatest season in USL history. Phoenix went on a historic 20-win streak, finishing the year with 78 points, 18 points ahead of the second-place Reno 1868 team. Solomon Asante was the Golden Boot winner (22 goals), assist champion (17 assist) and MVP, while Schantz won manager of the year.

Rising coach Rick Schantz celebrates his team’s victory with a cigar and a glass of champagne. (Photo by Aaron Bradley James/Cronkite News)

Although the Rising had great success during the 2019 season, they were eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual champions, Real Monarchs SLC.

It was quite clear that Rising were looking forward to the start of the 2020 schedule after such a strong, but disappointing season.

In order to improve, the Rising needed to revamp their squad which they did with the signing of Darnell King from Nashville SC, Jack Barmby from the Portland Timbers, Santi Moar from New Mexico United, Jordan Schweitzer from Colorado Springs, Rufat Dadashov and Sam Stanton.

They also brought back key players from the 2019 season, such as Joey Farrell and Jon Bakero, plus Erick Dick, on loan from Sporting KC.
The Rising started its 34-game season in electric fashion in a 6-1 thrashing of the Portland Timbers II. Dadashov netted a hat trick, while Asante had a goal and an assist.

That is when the Rising encountered its first huge obstacle of the year when on March 12 the USL officially announced the season would be halted for a minimum of two weeks due to the pandemic. Six days after that announcement, the league announced the delay would be extended until May 10 due to the CDC restriction of public gatherings of more than 50 people.

On May 11 the Rising returned to training with new restrictions, such as only allowing up to four players in the same drill, and only if the players also lived with or in close proximity to each other.

A month later, the club was hit again as General Manager Bobby Dulle announced that four players had tested positive for COVID-19 and would halt training completely for the club, which was right before full-contact training would have started for the club.

The Rising overcame this and became the first Arizona professional team to return to play on July 11 as the USL resumed with a shorter schedule.

Three days later, the Rising made history, signing the youngest player in club history — 14-year-old Ansuh Kanneh.

After a win, draw and loss in their first three games back, which was still good enough to be at the top of their group, the Rising lost assistant coach Peter Ramage as he was hired as Newcastle U-23 assistant.

In late August, as various sports leagues responded to protests against racism, the Rising held their own demonstration on Aug. 29 during a game at Reno. From the seven-minute mark until 8:46, both Rising and Reno 1868 FC players either stood or took a knee around the center circle of the pitch.

Goalkeeper Zac Lubin, center with trophy, has reason to celebrate. His penalty save in the shootout helped secure the conference championship on Saturday. (Photo by Aaron Bradley James/Cronkite News)

A few weeks later, the club announced its return of fans to its stadium, allowing 1,000 fans back to Casino Arizona Field starting off with its match Sept. 11 versus the Las Vegas Lights.

The first-place Rising added Damion Lowe to its roster before their final push of the season.

The Rising clinched a playoff berth with a 1-0 win over Orange County on Sept. 26, getting them one step closer to their goal of a USL championship. They would only need a few more points in to win their group outright and have a chance of hosting most playoff games at Casino Arizona Field.

All seemed well as the Rising headed to San Diego in hopes of securing the top spot in their group. That is when their season turned into chaos.

With the Loyal leading 3-1 near the end of the first half, Junior Flemmings of the Rising allegedly directed a homophobic slur towards San Diego’s Collin Martin, an openly gay player. Schantz also became immersed in the controversy as the Rising coach seemed to downplay the situation during a conversation with Loyal coach Landon Donavon.

When the second half began, Loyal players collectively marched off the field in protest, forfeiting the match.

The incident came just a week after the Loyal endured a similar, racially-charged incident during a game versus LA Galaxy II.

After an investigation, the USL suspended Flemmings for six games and the club put Schantz on administrative leave.

Blair Gavin was appointed manager and the Rising clinched the No.2 seed in playoffs with a 4-1 win over LA Galaxy II that included Kennah’s debut with the club.

The first two playoff games were real tests for the team as they both required extra time. In the quarterfinal, the Rising won in the 114th minute against Sacramento. The next game against No. 1 seed Reno 1868, was even tougher. The Rising fell behind 2-0, but recovered to send the game into overtime where Phoenix won on penalty kicks, 5-4.

Prior to Saturday’s match versus El Paso, the Rising announced that if they won, they would relinquish rights to hosting the championship game. The club did that due to the three points they got from the San Diego match because of the the Loyal’s forfeit. Those points helped the Rising earn the No.2 seed.

The day after defeating Reno 1868, the club the reinstated Schantz.

“During his administrative leave, Rick has dedicated himself to listening to members of the LGBTQ community and learning about the difference between tolerance and acceptance,” said Rising governor Berke Bakay. “I have witnessed a sincere commitment in him to use this public platform as head coach or our club to amplify the importance of equality and inclusion in professional sports.”

Schantz also apologized to Martin, who accepted the apology and said he would like to see Schantz back as manager as soon as possible.

With Schantz back on the sidelines Saturday, the Rising needed extra time again on Saturday, defeating El Paso 4-2 on penalty kicks.

This is more than just a championship game for the Rising, from not only what they faced this year as a club but also the previous years where they fell short of winning a title. This Sunday’s match could make all the challenges they have faced as a club all worth it by winning their first USL Championship even through all the difficulties.

Edwin Perez Ed-WIN Per-ez (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Edwin Perez expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Perez, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and AIA, graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in Spanish. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.