CHANDLER – A USL Championship title isn’t the only prize on the minds of Phoenix Rising FC players. Success pursuing the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup crown is a priority, too.
Those quests reached an interesting intersection this past week when the Rising faced New Mexico United twice in pursuit of both goals.
Victory Saturday in USL play? Check.
Victory Wednesday for Open U.S. Cup competition? Check.
The wins, both at Wild Horse Pass, will provide momentum as the team prepares to take on defensive-minded Miami FC Saturday, also at home.
“To play New Mexico United twice in a short span, it was difficult,” midfielder Joey Calistri said. “We came out and took it one game at a time. It’s fun. We want to make a run in the U.S. Open Cup. But now, after this, it’s back to a league match on Saturday. One game at a time.”
The first meeting with New Mexico United, a USL Championship league game, was a well-matched affair, with just one point separating the teams at the start of the match. The second was a third-round U.S. Open Cup game, with the winner advancing to the tournament’s round of 32.
The U.S. Open Cup is a single-game, knockout tournament that is open to all professional and amateur teams affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
New Mexico United is one of the closest USL Championship sides to Phoenix, located six hours east in Albuquerque. The proximity has created a bit of a rivalry in recent seasons.
“They’re a good side. They always are very competitive and very scrappy,” Rising defender Joe Farrell said ahead of the first game. “We never really have seen a blowout in any of the matches either way, and I know it’s going to be a fight.”
Playing the same team in back-to-back games created an interesting dynamic, with the first match result often dictating the approach to game two.
“I don’t really care about (the second meeting), we only care about the one game on Saturday,” Schantz said ahead of game one. “We’ll just take it one game at a time … and getting the guys focused on making sure that we continue to improve and continue to get results.”
The first game was a tightly contested affair with Rising goalkeeper Ben Lundt saving the team on multiple occasions en route to a 1-0 Phoenix win.
The lone goal came in the 14th minute courtesy of Greg Hurst, and a stunning team goal it was. The play started with a New Mexico header which looked a certain goal until Ben Lundt made a reaction save to his right, pawing the ball out of harm’s way. Kevon Lambert then cleared the ball up to half-field, where it took a bounce and fell to the feet of Marcus Epps, who quickly crossed the ball to the middle of the field and Greg Hurst, who was wide open.
From there, Hurst danced around the keeper, finishing calmly into the corner, a well=played counter-attacking goal.
New Mexico would have 17 shots throughout the game, with five on target, but Lundt held strong. In the final minutes of the game, New Mexico would get its best chance yet when the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Lundt sprawled out to his right side and saving the penalty, and the match, for Phoenix.
“Sometimes your big man gets called upon to make a save,” Schantz said. “The four or five saves Ben had tonight were big time. If that’s not a team of the week performance, I don’t know what is.”
Despite the win, the first game was close with Lundt’s heroics carrying the Rising to three points.
Although Farrell didn’t expect changes between games, Schantz saw there were tactical adjustments that needed to be made, because “their two forwards are very fast, and if we try to match-up man to man I think it’s a bit difficult.”
Unlike the first, the second game was an elimination game, with the winner moving on to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. A Rising win would make it the farthest they have advanced in the Open Cup.
“The Cup games are always exciting,” Farrell said. “It’s always that one and done, win-or-go-home situation. So doesn’t matter if it takes 90 minutes, doesn’t matter if it takes 120 (minutes) … whatever it takes to get the job done.”
The Rising shifted formation in game two, away from their usual 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, leaving three center-backs with wing-backs on each side, both attacking and dropping back to cover. Baboucarr Njie returned to the lineup as the left wing-back while Phoenix native Channing Chasten got his first start, lining up as the right wing-back.
The formation change seemed to work with the Rising taking a 1-0 lead in the first 10 minutes. Aodhan Quinn released Joey Calistri down the right flank and his cross deflected off a New Mexico player, over the keeper’s head and into the net.
After New Mexico tied the game, and with just 10 minutes remaining and extra time looming, Chasten would send a ball from the right side into the box, finding the head of Santi Moar. Moar headed it back into the middle of the box where Greg Hurst, who subbed on after starting and scoring in the last game, would flick the ball into the bottom right corner of the net, giving Phoenix a late 2-1 lead.
The game would finish that way, with Phoenix looking far more comfortable compared to the first game. The win would make it the first time in seven years that the Rising have advanced to the round of 32.
“For us to be able to move on against a very good team, and to beat them twice, our guys showed a lot of heart and commitment,” Schantz said. “I’m very proud. We played two or three different systems in tonight’s game that we have never played before. We had three days to put it into place. It worked out perfectly other than when we got a little bit lazy and gave up that goal.”
Compared to the Rising who made four lineup changes and shifted formation, New Mexico only changed two players from the first game.
Besides the lineup changes, the home-field advantage played a role for the Rising in their two wins, with New Mexico training away from home between games.
“I feel like playing in front of our home fans always brings just excitement, not necessarily pressure,” Farrell said. “We know that we don’t have 11 (players), we have 12, so it’s always that little added benefit for us and to have two home games, we’re staying in our own places, we’re having good meals, we’re training at our own facility. Everything is looking great for us.”
In the next U.S. Open Cup round, the Rising were drawn against another USL Championship side, Sacramento Republic FC, with the game taking place in California on May 11. The back-to-back wins mean the Rising have won five straight games and four straight at home.
They have an opportunity to extend both streaks Saturday against Miami FC.