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Phoenix Rising fueled by painful memory as playoff push continues

Phoenix Rising players decide to have a little fun after a shooting drill in practice. The Rising face the Swope Park Rangers Friday in a playoff game. (Photo by Ricardo Ávila/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The game clock ticked: 105:58, 105:59, 106:00.

The Phoenix Rising, leading 1-0 against the host Swope Park Rangers, were 15 minutes away from advancing to the 2017 United Soccer League Western Conference semifinals. It would be quite the feat considering it was the team’s inaugural season.

A Didier Drogba header had put the Rising ahead, the same Drogba that later lay injured on the grass of the Rising’s penalty box when Swope Park tied the game only three minutes into the second half of extra time.

The 1-1 score didn’t change and the game went to penalty kicks, where two Rising misses sent the Arizona team home.

It is a painful memory and a loss the Rising hope to avenge Friday at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex in the USL Cup playoffs when Kansas City-based Swope Park comes to Arizona for a Western Conference semifinal game Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Gates open at 5:30 p.m. and Rising players will make a “red carpet” entrance through the fans.

For Rising midfielder Kevon Lambert, who played in 10 games last season and now is in his first full season with the club, that game was especially significant.

Lambert missed the Rising’s first penalty kick.

The first taker, Lambert lined up slightly outside of the box, but his bottom-right shot was stopped by the Swope goalkeeper.

Lambert said he is approaching the playoff rematch Friday as “just another game.”

“Not going there to prove anything, because when you try those things, sometimes it can mess up your game,” he said. “I’m just going there approaching it as a normal game.”

In anticipation of a similar scenario unfolding, Rising players have been practicing penalty kicks in training, even simulating the walk from midfield toward the goal.

Lambert said the team is focused and ready to face Swope Park again.

“They’re a pretty good team,” he said. “They love to keep possession. We just got to be patient, wait for them to make mistakes and just make use of it.”

The Rising are fresh off a 3-0 home win against Portland Timbers 2, while Swope Park scored a 2-1 upset of second-seeded Sacramento Republic FC to get to the semifinals.

In the regular season, the Rising finished third in the Western Conference with 63 points. Swope Park, which was seventh in the standings with 53 points, is looking for another upset.

The Rising are the fifth-highest scoring team in the league with 66 goals, while Swope Park ranked 12th with 54. Defensively, the Rising led the league with 17 shutouts, while Swope recorded 10.

With a spot in the Western Conference final on the line, Rising coach Rick Schantz said that what is at stake is more important than playing against a Swope team that knocked the Rising out last year.

“It’s a very different team than what we had last year, and Swope is very different than what they had last year,” he said.

Schantz said the revenge factor is something for the fans and coaching staff, but not the players.

“For the players, it’s just another time to move on (in the playoffs),” he said.

The situation has changed dramatically for Schantz, too. Last season, he was an assistant for then-Rising coach Patrice Carteron. Now, he’s at the helm of the team and one step from the conference championship game.

As an assistant, Schantz focused solely on the opponent and helping Carteron make decisions.

“Now I have to make those decisions,” Schantz said. “ The pressure’s really stepped up, but I love it.

“Thinking about the whole picture now, you think about the staff, the players that aren’t playing, the guys that are injured, along with the first team guys.”

Lambert also is in a different role. With his usual partner James Musa out with a lower body injury, Lambert has stepped into the central midfield spot with more defensive responsibilities.

Against Timbers 2, Lambert sat back while Collin Fernandez took over the offensive aspect of central midfield.

“I don’t mind the work. … We’re all one team,” Lambert said.

Lambert hopes fans will turn up to the stadium the way they did against Timbers 2, setting a Rising attendance record of 7,511 for what was the first home playoff game in team history.

“It was one of the best atmospheres that I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here,” Lambert said. “The fans came out and it helped us a lot knowing that everyone’s got us, everyone’s behind us.”

Schantz compared the importance in soccer of playing host to a USL Cup conference semifinal game to having the World Series in baseball or a Super Bowl in football.

“That’s the biggest thing, just getting everyone in Phoenix to understand they have something really special here in the Valley,” he said.

Schantz said his players understand the game plan and that they’ve been reviewing game film every day.

“Organized and focused I think would be the best way to describe the team right now,” he said.

Schantz said Swope Park is a very good team that plays a wide-open and attractive style of soccer, exerting high pressure when they lose the ball.

“It’s gonna be important for us to take advantage of our opportunities when we get them. … If Didier (Drogba) can do that (score from a free kick) again, that would be pretty nice,” he said.

Lambert said winning is the bottom line.

“It doesn’t matter how we get it or what’s the score,” he said. “We’re just going there for the win. We’ll be going for it, going for the win, going to the finals; win this trophy.”

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