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Didier Drogba sparks Phoenix Rising to playoff victory

Some things never change. Didier Drogba celebrates his free kick goal in the Phoenix Rising's playoff game the same way he celebrated his 2012 Champions League-winning penalty for Chelsea. (Photo by Ricardo Ávila/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE — With the largest crowd in Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex history watching Didier Drogba score a free kick in the first half, the Phoenix Rising’s historic season lived to see another day.

The Rising took down Portland Timbers 2 3-0 Friday in Scottsdale in the United Soccer League Western Conference quarterfinals.

The Rising began the game timidly, allowing the visiting side to attack and exert high pressure on them.

But that didn’t matter to Drogba. The Rising were awarded a free kick well outside the box in the 28th minute.

The former Chelsea man took the ball with his hands, placed it and took aim. It seemed as if he knew what was about to happen.

The 7,511 in attendance watched in silence as Drogba struck the ball with enough power to get past Timbers goalkeeper Austin Pack.

As soon as the ball hit the back of the net, the stadium erupted.

Drogba celebrated by running toward the corner flag, yelling and grabbing the Phoenix Rising crest on his jersey with might.

Club governor Berke Bakay, co-owner Mark Detmer and general manager Bobby Dulle all euphorically jumped and screamed.

“Crowd was incredible. That’s the loudest I’ve heard the stadium, ever,” Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said.

The crowd saw Drogba score, Jason Johnson make his return to the scoresheet after being injured and Solomon Asante bag his 14th goal of the season.

The tale of last Saturday’s regular season game between the teams, when Timbers 2 beat the Rising 1-0, didn’t repeat itself.

Friday, the Rising dominated the entire second half, and the floodgates opened after Johnson’s 62nd-minute goal. Johnson received a long pass from Chris Cortez and dodged his way inside the box, beating Pack at his near post.

The Rising kept pressing and secured their third half an hour later. Asante recovered a Billy Forbes rebound and scored with a soft shot to the right of the goal.

“To come here and finish three shows how well and focused we were this week in training,” Johnson said. “Other teams really can’t keep up with us.”

The 3-0 win marked the Rising’s first-ever playoff win and shutout.

“It’s fantastic. …I told the players to die on the field tonight. Everybody gave 100 percent,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said.

Schantz said the plan was to sit back and open space, and that even though the Rising weren’t playing great, Drogba’s free kick rescued them.

“We were much more clinical tonight,” Schantz said.

Schantz lauded Drogba’s performance since the Rising weren’t playing as well at the time of his goal.

“He (Drogba) kinda put the team on his back, and got us that victory,” he said.

The Rising will now face the winner of Saturday’s game between Sacramento Republic FC and Swope Park Rangers in the Western Conference semifinals with date and time yet to be determined.

If Sacramento win, the Rising will travel for their game. If Swope goes through, there will be another playoff night in Arizona.

Woszczynski said the team is growing together at the right time.

“Next week we come battle again,” he said.

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