PHOENIX – After a remarkable regular season for Phoenix Rising FC, in which the team never lost a game at home and finished at the top of the USL’s Western Conference Pacific division, the club now sets its sights on another first.
Winning that elusive championship.
The Rising have been in contention for a few years. They made it to the playoffs for the first time in 2017, just three years after becoming a team. The Rising lost in that first round, but they reached the USL semifinal in 2019 and the championship round in 2020 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
But that title game was canceled because of an outbreak of COVID-19 within the Tampa Bay organization. Now, with the pandemic a little more under control, the Rising find themselves getting ready for another playoff run.
With home field advantage through the Western Conference Final, the Rising take on the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros in the quarterfinals Saturday, hoping the crowd at Wild Horse Pass propels Phoenix throughout the postseason. The Rising ended the regular season at 20-7-5, while the Toros went 13-8-11 to finish fourth in the Mountain Division.
“At the end of the day, being the best team in the West is massive for us. We finished with 68 goals and 67 points, not a bad regular season,” coach Rick Schantz said. “We have scored more goals than any team in the U.S., even in the MLS.”
The Rising’s regular season ended with a 1-1 draw at home Saturday to the Tacoma Defiance, who were playing for a spot in the playoffs. The draw saw the Rising earn the top spot in the Western Conference, thanks to some substitutions made by Schantz in the 57th minute.
“Our subs were unbelievable for us. They made a huge impact and brought a lot of energy to the game,” Schantz said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to heading into the playoffs. We have a lot of guys that can come in, change the game and be that difference maker.
“This is the time where whatever issues you have as an individual player have to be put aside,” Schantz added. “The most important thing is for us to come together as a team.”
Even within training, Schantz makes sure the team understands just how meaningful these upcoming playoff matches are.
“In training everything was a competition, every activity had a winner and a loser,” Schantz said. “The players really began to understand that it really means something, not that they haven’t understood that all year, it’s just more serious now.”
Every game now is win or go home. The Rising are a very competitive team and have worked hard all season preparing for the postseason, Schantz said.
“Everything could be done and over for us in the next week,” Schantz said. “Our last training could be next Friday, and that brings a little bit of finality to everything you do at this point of the year.”
In an interview with 98.7 FM, Bobby Dulle, the Rising’s general manager, said the club’s playoff experience and strong leadership could be the deciding factor this year.
“There’s a lot of excitement down here around the camp,” Dulle said. “This is the time of the year the players really look forward to, the weather’s really good so we’re all excited for the future days.”
Dulle also touched on what has been the strength for the Rising all season, with the hope it extends into the playoffs.
“I think about the past couple years that we’ve had a lot of success in and I really think it comes down to some stability in leadership positions as well as some important culture guys,” Dulle said. “Having guys in those key positions is really helpful to the team especially heading into these important times in the playoffs.”
This is evident in some of the Rising’s performances this year where they have come back from being down to winning games in the final minutes. That’s indicative of the powerful culture within the team and the players’ willingness to work hard and fight until the final whistle.
“Come playoffs anything can happen … you can catch a bad break,” Dulle said. “It’s just that response and I think we’ve seen that this year with the team.
“That all just comes down to the culture here and the will to win and that’s what we have this year, and I’m really excited to see it and you can never count us out.”
Playing 15 matches at home with 11 wins, four ties and zero losses is an accomplishment. Rising fans have embraced the culture and love to support the team at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler. Based on their regular-season record, the Rising, should they beat the Toros, would host the conference semifinal (Nov. 13) and final (Nov. 20).
“Having home-field advantage is what we play for. We know we have the best field and fans in the USL,” Dulle said. “The energy that our fans create and the energy it gives our guys in the last minutes of the game, like I previously mentioned, is really what it’s all about.”
Since the formation of the team in 2014, there has been an upward trend in match attendance for the Rising. The club recently set a franchise record when over 9,200 fans attended a game against Sacramento. Compared to the average attendance in 2014 of around 2,500, it’s clear the Rising have become a hot draw in the Valley.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t lost at home this year,” Dulle said. “So hopefully in the upcoming postseason matches we can keep it going and do it in front of our fans.”