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Zlatan of the USL: Phoenix Rising’s Cortez approaching another record

Phoenix Rising rorward Chris Cortez undergoes a shooting drill during practice in Scottsdale. Cortez set the Rising record for most goals scored in a single season with 15, and has since scored another one. (Photo by Ricardo Ávila/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE —  The 86th minute. United Soccer League’s Phoenix Rising is down by two goals against San Antonio FC and are awarded a free kick from just outside of the box. Rising forward Chris Cortez steps up and buries the ball in the bottom left corner of the net.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Cortez had just made history. The Rising lost the game, but Cortez became the club’s leading all-time single-season scorer with 15 goals, surpassing the record of 14 goals held by Long Tan.

And Cortez soon could take down another one of Tan’s records as the Rising’s all-time scoring leader. Cortez has scored 28 goals for Phoenix, one short of Tan’s Rising record of 29.

Cortez’s goal production this year has been his best ever. He’s played in the USL since 2014, joining then-Arizona United in 2016. Arizona United became Phoenix Rising in 2017.

Dating to 2014, Cortez had scored a total of 23 goals in four seasons before this year’s outburst.

He has added another goal since that San Antonio game and with 16 goals now sits fourth in the race for the USL Golden Boot, which is awarded to the league’s top scorer. Louisville City’s Cameron Lancaster is in first place with 21 goals.

So what changed?

“First, I’ve been healthy all year,” said Cortez, who missed nearly two months of the 2017 season due to a knee injury.

“Striker is a huge confidence position,” he said. “So being able to get those reps in and get that practice and have that continuity again, I think that’s helped a lot.”

Cortez said he hasn’t thought twice about becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t really care. If I don’t score any goals the rest of the season, but we go on to win a championship, I’ll take that over anything.”

Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski has known Cortez since 2013 when both played for the then-LA Blues. That team rebranded and is currently Orange County SC.

“We kind of instantly became best friends,” said Woszczynski, who compared Cortez’s playing style to that of Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“He’s a big man, but agile,” Woszczynski said.

Cortez is good with his feet and can score some acrobatic goals, much like Ibrahimovic, Woszczynski said.

“Zlatan has better hair, though,” Woszczynski said.

Woszczynski was instrumental to Cortez’s arrival in Phoenix. He recommended that former Rising coach Frank Yallop sign Cortez in 2016.

“Frank trusted my word and brought him in,” Woszczynski said. “Luckily, Frank trusts me enough to bring him in sight-unseen without a trial or anything, and it worked out for us.”

Woszczynski said Cortez is efficient. Cortez’s numbers this season underscore that statement.

Cortez has taken 33 shots on target, scoring 16 goals. This means he scores a goal almost every two shots he takes and scores a goal every 123.1 minutes, according to the USL.

Last season, Cortez scored one goal every 326 minutes.

Rising coach Rick Schantz said the secret to Cortez’s production has been the signing of Rising forward Kevaughn Frater because it motivated Cortez to work harder for a starting spot.

This season, Cortez has started 21 games while Frater has started five times and scored three goals to Cortez’s 16.

“He’s been outstanding from Day One this year,” Schantz said.

Schantz also attributed some of Cortez’s production to Phoenix players such as midfielder Solomon Asante and forward Billy Forbes. He said Cortez is devoted to success.

Cortez has followed a strict diet, and has committed himself to stretching and cryotherapy sessions, according to Schantz. Woszczynski said Cortez has hit the gym more often, too.

It has all paid off. The former Chivas USA player, who made his MLS debut in 2011, is having a career year in his second season with the Rising.

“It’s usually 90 percent mental for Chris, and this year he’s been really focused,” Schantz said. “It’s something I’m really proud of.”

Cortez’s success has also translated to team improvement. With a home match coming up Saturday against Saint Louis FC, the Rising already have broken club records for most wins in a season with 18, and most points in a season with 59.

With four games to play, Phoenix is second in the Western Conference and has clinched a playoff spot. But the Rising hope to continue winning and secure as many home playoff games as possible.

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