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Phoenix Rising clinches USL regular-season title with late comeback draw

(Twitter photo/@PHXRisingFC)

Phoenix Rising FC is your 2019 USL regular-season champion.

The club clinched the Supporters’ Shield on Saturday night after coming back from a 2-0 deficit to tie New Mexico United 2-2.

Phoenix will now have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It wasn’t the most impressive of outings by Rising, at least for the first 70 minutes or so.

Phoenix manager Rick Schantz deployed a full starting XI, minus midfielder Jon Bakero, who is still nursing a knee injury.

But the absence of Bakero has been considerably noticeable in the club’s last three matches, but none more than Saturday night’s contest.

The Spaniard has been the bridge from the midfield to the forwards all season with his ability to create for the likes of Solomon Asante, Adam Jahn and Junior Flemmings (AJF), the deadliest attacking trio in league history with its 51 combined goals this season (USL single-season record for goals scored by three teammates).

Perhaps the lack of goals scored recently (one goal in three of the last four matches) can serve as proof. But Phoenix has continued to find a way to capture all three points in three of those four matches.

A big part of that has to do with Schantz’s substitutes, who have been a monumental part of the club’s success this year. Numerous times the likes of Joey Calistri, and even Bakero and Kevon Lambert when they don’t start, have come on and either scored or been a part of the build-up play that resulted in a game-tying and winning goals.

Such was the case on Saturday night.

After going down 2-0 by allowing goals in the opening minutes of each half and failing to really test New Mexico’s goalkeeper for most of the match, Schantz brought on Calistri, but with a bit of a twist.

Instead of a like-for-like switch for a winger, the manager elected to take out midfielder Jose Aguinaga and place Asante where Bakero would normally play and deploy Calistri in the captain’s usual spot on the right flank.

The move worked to perfection.

Calistri notched a brace in the final 20 minutes of the game to complete the comeback, the second of which came in the 90th minute moments after Phoenix had struck the crossbar twice.

Rising has faced New Mexico three times in all competitions this season, none of which have resulted with a winner. Both league games ended in a draw and the U.S. Open Cup match saw NMU advance on penalties, which statistically also goes down as a tie. As a result, New Mexico joins Fresno FC as the only two clubs Phoenix hasn’t beaten in 2019.

With New Mexico holding on to the 10th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with just four games remaining in the season, it is entirely possible that the two sides could meet once again in the postseason should NMU win its play-in game as the No. 10 seed.

Phoenix Rising returns to action on Saturday in its final road game of the season away to 12th-place Portland Timbers 2. Phoenix defeated Portland 4-2 in their last matchup at Casino Arizona Field on June 29.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and will be audio-streamed on ArizonaSports.com.

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