SCOTTSDALE — With a win Wednesday night, Phoenix Rising FC would get to experience MLS competition way ahead of schedule.
That’s the magic of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
While MLS commissioner Don Garber continues to deliberate over Phoenix’s bid for a permanent home in the league, the Rising will host the San Francisco Deltas in the third round of U.S. Soccer’s oldest ongoing tournament.
If victorious, the Rising will match their best ever result in the single elimination competition, which this year features a record 99 teams from all divisions of U.S. Soccer, and will earn a June 14 date with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Rising forward Jason Johnson, who has played in MLS with the Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire, believes a potential matchup with San Jose would provide the perfect measuring stick to assess the team’s ability to compete at the highest level of American soccer.
“That would be very good for the club, the fans and also for the team, just to see a perspective of how close we are to an MLS team,” Johnson said.
It also wouldn’t be the first time Phoenix’s professional soccer club got the chance to do so. In 2014, then-Arizona United Soccer Club fell 2-1 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup to the LA Galaxy in Peoria.
Off the field, Phoenix was one of 12 cities that submitted formal applications in January for an MLS expansion franchise. The league is likely to announce the selection of two teams by October who will start play in 2020. Two additional teams will be chosen at a later date.
Interim manager Rick Schantz said that it would be great to have the opportunity to line up against an MLS team again, but insisted that his team is solely focused on building momentum following its 2-1 win against LA Galaxy II.
“For us, it’s just keeping the winning mentality going,” Schantz said. “We won on the weekend and we’d like to get two in a row and just stay focused.”
Putting two wins together has been an issue early this season for the team, which has alternated wins and losses over its last five league games. The Rising were able to buck that trend in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup with a 3-1 win over Fresno FC of the Premier Development League.
Schantz knows that a win against San Francisco, who plays in the North American Soccer League, won’t come so easy.
“It’s another level up,” Schantz said. “We’re playing a team that’s another Division II team. We know they’ve got some very seasoned veterans and good pros.”
Johnson believes any win, against any level of competition, is beneficial to the newly-rebranded franchise.
“It helps with confidence for the players,” Johnson said. “So I think it’s just as important as the regular season for us.”
Schantz insisted that the Rising’s goal first and foremost is to win the USL Championship, but said that the team will do everything it can to advance in the U.S. Open Cup, including start some of its first-team players.
“Our fans need to know that we don’t take it lightly,” Schantz said. “We are going to go after it.”
Johnson, who has had some individual success in the competition with San Antonio FC, hopes the team can put together a serious pursuit of the trophy.
“I’ve scored a few goals yes, but unfortunately I haven’t made it as far as I would like to,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping with a chance like this and the team and the guys we have here, we might make a good run this year.”
While it may seem unlikely that Phoenix Rising would have a legitimate chance to win the whole thing, non-MLS sides have done just that in recent history. Most recently, the Rochester Rhinos beat the Colorado Rapids in the U.S. Open Cup Final in 1999. The Charleston Battery, who currently sit in first place of the USL’s Eastern Conference, made the final as recently as 2008.
Given the franchise’s uncertain future, Schantz knows better than to look too far ahead and is doing what he can to make sure his team stays focused on the game and the season at hand.
“I know ownership and the fans and everybody, they want to see how we do against an MLS team. I promise when we get there, we’ll be prepared for it. This is just preparation for the next game.”