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Phoenix Rising set to host first-ever USL home playoff game

The Didier Drogba-led Phoenix Rising train in Scottsdale ahead of the team's playoff game against Portland Timbers 2. The Rising lost against Timbers 2 in the last game of the regular season. (Photo by Ricardo Ávila/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – A lot can change in a month.

A month ago, the Phoenix Rising trailed first-placed Orange County SC by four points, with two games in hand. A first-place finish was attainable.

A month ago, the Rising won seven of eight games between August and September, scoring 18 goals and allowing only four.

A month ago, the Rising had three club records in sight: most club points in a single season, most goals scored in a single season and best-ever finish.

And even though they achieved all three records, their hot September form has cooled off along with the Arizona weather, with the first round of the United Soccer League playoffs approaching.

The last three games of the regular season saw the Rising lose twice and tie once, scoring two goals and allowing six in the process.

The Rising’s final regular season game last week was a home loss against Portland Timbers 2, their playoff rival on Friday. The first meeting ended in a 1-0 defeat thanks to a late goal conceded in the 85th minute.

The Rising finished the regular season in third place of the Western Conference, three points behind first-placed Orange County SC.

“Focusing pretty intently all week. The level has definitely raised. Everyone’s kind of buzzing to get into this first game and really get a chance to bite back at Portland for the last weekend,” said Rising defender Joe Farrell.

Farrell said the team can’t take anything for granted, after having significantly more goal-scoring options than Portland last week, and said scoring early is key for Timbers 2 to lose confidence.

Rising Head Coach Rick Schantz said losing to Portland gave the Rising focus.

“At this point now, we know everything we need to know about Portland. The idea here is being a little bit more focused in the final third,” Schantz said.

Schantz said the last three games served the Rising as preparation for the playoffs.

“Ifs don’t get you anything in this game,” he said. “All we have now is we have to win. If we take our chances and put the game away early, that’ll definitely be in our favor. … In the front third in particular, we have to be killers.”

They have the fifth-best offense in the league with 63 goals and the second best defense, with 16 shutouts allowed.

It seems even the club’s Major League Soccer aspirations could be jeopardized. The Rising were aiming for one of two MLS spots, Nos. 27 or 28.

MLS currently fields 23 teams, but has confirmed three more spots, for FC Cincinnati in 2019 and for Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC in 2020.

Detroit and Sacramento were the other two finalists of the vote to grant MLS franchises Nos. 24 and 25. They are competing directly with the Rising, among others, for an MLS spot.

Now, it’s likely one of the two remaining spots will be going to Austin FC, the team from the Texas city where the Columbus Crew franchise had planned on moving to landing.

The Crew could now remain in Columbus due to Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam emerging as strong candidates to buy the team and keep it in Ohio.

MLS hasn’t fully clarified whether or not Austin FC will take up one of two remaining MLS spots but strongly hinted at that possibility.

“Regardless of any scenario in Columbus, there is a clear path forward for PSV to operate Austin FC as a Major League Soccer club,” MLS said via a statement on their website.

PSV, or Precourt Sports Ventures, is Crew CEO Anthony Precourt’s ownership group.

Friday will also serve as an official MLS visit to Phoenix. The club is hosting MLS executives, who will be attending the match. Rising General Manager Bobby Dulle said the MLS visit is “just a visit.”

If the Rising win and eliminate Timbers 2, they will face the winner of the Sacramento Republic-Swope Park Rangers matchup.

And out of that matchup, if Sacramento wins, the Rising will visit California. If Swope wins, the Rising will play the Western Conference semifinal game at home.

In 2017, the Rising finished in fifth place of the Western Conference and had to travel to Kansas, where they lost to Swope via penalty kicks after being ahead in extra time.

“We’d love to play Swope again,” Schantz said.

Farrell said the Rising would rather play at home because fans give the team an extra energy boost.

“Please come out and support us with all you guys got,” he said.

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