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Phoenix Rising clinches playoff berth with shutout win over Orange County

Phoenix Rising FC forward Rufat Dadashov. (Arizona Sports/Ashley Orellana)

Phoenix Rising FC is officially headed to the 2020 USL Championship playoffs.

PRFC became the first Group B side to qualify for the postseason after defeating Orange County SC 1-0 on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field.

And barring a collapse that would require Phoenix to lose both of its next two matches by a combined score of 25, Rising FC will be crowned winners of Group B and host the runnerup of Group A in the round of 16.

“It’s a very, very good group. To win the division, that’s what we always set out to do — we set goals and right now that’s the best we could do: win our division,” Phoenix manager Rick Schantz said.

“I told the guys, the back four, back five, even Zac (Lubin) — that’s the kind of game that shows you can win championships. You have to be able to play like that. It’s not the best football, but we’ve never really been able to do that since I’ve been here. I’m more proud of the 1-0 win tonight than winning the division to be honest.”

Schantz made a few changes to his starting XI from last time out.

After making his team debut as a substitute last match, center back Damion Lowe made his first start in a PRFC kit in place of A.J. Cochran. Midfielder Jose Aguinaga also got the starting nod over Sam Stanton, while captain Solomon Asante returned to the starting XI in place of Santi Moar.

The match was the third contest between the two rivals on the year and was played to a similar tune as the two prior, which were a 1-1 draw and 1-0 OC win in Irvine, California.

Phoenix outshot Orange County 13-8 (6-3 on target) while also seeing 52% of the ball and outpassing OC 450-410. But defensively, it was the Lowe show on Saturday night.

In what was his first 90-minute match since 2019, the Jamaican center back put in a Man of the Match performance. Lowe was all over the pitch: winning tackles, putting a foot in, getting to the ball first and winning most balls in the air.

“It’s been a long time since I played the full 90, but coach brought me in to get the job done,” Lowe said. “Thanks to God, thanks to Phoenix for giving me the opportunity. Great win, great shutout, more to come.

“Coach brought me in to get clean sheets. We weren’t getting a lot during the season. I’m a no nonsense defender. I live for this, I live to win games and go out without [opponents] scoring. Defenders always want to play to nil. Once we play to nil, there’s an opportunity that we will win. Today we got the job done.”

In the opening 120 seconds of the match, Rising FC goalkeeper Zac Lubin made a big one-on-one save to keep his side level and avoid allowing an early goal for the second consecutive week.

And just over 20 minutes later, Lubin would have to come up big again after center back Joey Farrell turned the ball over — Phoenix turnovers leading to goals has been a reoccurring theme of late.

“I think that’s where we’ve been struggling, I feel like I’ve been struggling — not making that big save, that early save to keep us in a game,” Lubin said. “So to come out, get that first one, get a big save, play my way into the game is super important for me and I think that again gave confidence to the team.

“[If we make] a little mistake, I’m there to have their back and then I know they have my back so it’s just everybody working for each other.”

However, Phoenix Rising would break the deadlock just after the hydration break.

In the 37th minute, PRFC No. 9 Rufat Dadashov would get on the end of a Darnell King cross that OC goalkeeper Frederik Due managed to save initially. But the Azjerbajani striker was able to pounce on it and poke it in for the game’s lone goal and his 11th on the campaign.

“[The next two matches will] set the tone for us because these teams are playoff teams and we need to prepare for the playoffs,” Lubin said. “Orange County tonight, this is playoff soccer, Wednesday (at San Diego) is playoff soccer, Saturday (vs. Los Dos) is playoff soccer and that’s going to set the tone for the postseason.

“We want to come out, win those games and we’re chasing home-field advantage, so that’s super important to us.”

UP NEXT

Phoenix Rising returns to action on Wednesday as the club travels away to San Diego Loyal SC.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and will be audio broadcasted live on ArizonaSports.com and on the new Arizona Sports app.