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After clinching playoff spot, Phoenix Rising FC looks to win group of death

Phoenix Rising FC. (Arizona Sports/Ashley Orellana)

There’s no question as to which division has been USL Championship’s group of death on the 2020 season: Group B.

And there really isn’t an argument.

Phoenix Rising FC currently leads Group B with 29 points and clinched the division’s first playoff spot after beating fellow group opponent Orange County SC 1-0 at Casino Arizona Field on Saturday night.

And while PRFC hasn’t officially won the group (yet), it would take Phoenix losing both of its remaining regular-season matches combined with LA Galaxy II winning both of its two games left to go while also overcoming a 25-goal differential.

But Group B being the last of the league’s eight divisions to clinch a playoff spot isn’t the only reason why it’s the group of death.

It’s also one of only three divisions with five teams (five groups have four clubs) and is the only group in which four of its participants are still playoff eligible.

No other division currently has more than three teams fighting for a postseason berth, as Group B is one of only four groups to still have a playoff spot up for grabs.

And going into Wednesday’s fixtures, only one other group (Group E) had more than two teams on 20-plus points.

Group B currently has four teams on a minimum of 21 points with four of its five clubs still having two matches left to play.

“It’s been difficult. It is a very difficult group … the good thing for us is, there hasn’t been any off games,” manager Rick Schantz told reporters via Zoom from the team bus on Tuesday. “You have to be focused every match, you have to be 100% going into it. So that hopefully prepares us for the playoffs. We play another week where we’re going to play another team that’s fighting for their lives (San Diego Loyal SC) and on Saturday this weekend, LA Galaxy II is trying to make the playoffs.

“So by the time we get into the playoffs, we will have already had that type of intensity from our opponents. I think it’s been a great wakeup call for us. … Our division in particular has been very difficult and been a good challenge.”

Now that the playoff picture is starting to shape itself out, we can finally look ahead to what a potential USL Championship Final run might look like for Phoenix Rising.

Barring a collapse from PRFC and Reno 1868 FC, Phoenix will host Sacramento Republic FC in the Western Conference quarterfinals (round of 16) at Casino Arizona Field.

“I know Mark Briggs very well. He’s extremely intelligent, a very good coach,” Schantz said of Sacramento’s manager. “They’ve been playing a little bit of an off-balance 4-2-3-1, so they’ll probably get players behind the ball. But they’re also extremely talented, very aggressive… it’s going to be difficult.

“[All teams] pose extremely difficult challenges for us. … Do I think teams will come into Phoenix and sit deep? I think with the addition of Damion (Lowe), that changes people’s perception a little bit. They can’t just kick it over the top anymore.”

Assuming Rising FC advances, Phoenix’s next opponent would be the winner of Reno and the runnerup of Group B, with the highest remaining seed getting to host the Western Conference semifinals.

As it stands, Phoenix is the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and the No. 4 seed overall, with homefield advantage being awarded to the team with the most points.

Tiebreakers this season are as follows:

1) wins
2) goal difference
3) goals scored
4) fewest disciplinary points (cards)
5) lottery

And when it comes to tiebreakers — should PRFC win both of its remaining two matches — Rising FC is guaranteed to be at worst tied for the most wins in USL Championship.

Phoenix Rising’s +23 goal differential is currently the best in the Western Conference (second-best in USLC) and its 39 goals scored are tied with Reno for the most in the league.

Again — assuming PRFC wins out — that means that unless Rising FC has to play Reno, San Antonio FC (Western Conference Final) or Tampa Bay Rowdies/Charleston Battery (USL Championship Final), the 2020 postseason will once again have to come through Phoenix.

“Getting first in the Western Conference and the highest seed possible is still important, so we’re going to go after all the points, but we trust all the players that are here,” Schantz said. “We’ve talked about our depth all year long and nows a chance for some of those guys to come through.”