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Rising FC punches ticket to conference semis with late extra time winner

Phoenix Rising FC (Arizona Sports/Ashley Orellana)

Phoenix Rising FC punched its ticket to the Western Conference semifinals after a 1-0 win over Sacramento Republic FC in extra time on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field.

That could be taken both literally and metaphorically — depending who you ask.

After nearly two full hours of scoreless football, Phoenix Rising captain Solomon Asante scored the match-winning goal in the 114th minute by redirecting a Santi Moar shot.

“Believe me, we’re very excited,” Asante said after the match. “I’m very happy for this victory. We knew it was going to be a very difficult game — just so excited, so excited.”

However, the Ghanaian appeared to may have used his hand or arm in order to guide the ball into the back of the net. You be the judge, as USL does not have VAR:

“We tried so many times to cross the ball, but they have a very good defense,” Asante said of his goal. “So I just decided to go all out. Thank god the ball hit my chest, so who cares? It went in.”

As expected, Moar started in place of the suspended Junior Flemmings at the left wing position. But another Jamaican absentee featured in interim manager Blair Gavin’s starting XI on the night: center back Damion Lowe, who was subbed in for Rufat Dadashov in the 118th minute.

“He’s getting close,” Gavin said of Lowe returning to full fitness. “Every day he’s getting better. You see his confidence in himself rising and I’m expecting a big week from him and everyone else to keep pushing.”

Sacramento followed what has become almost a Western Conference blueprint to facing Phoenix Rising if the goal of the match is to not lose rather than to win. Republic FC executed that plan brilliantly, as the Group A runner-up defended in deep lines, keeping 10 players behind the ball and cutting off passing lanes while also playing extremely physical.

“They have a lot of really good players, they’re experienced, they’re organized,” Gavin said. “They had a great gameplan going into it.

“They basically sat into a mid-block and pressed us in the wide areas and made it very difficult. They closed the space in the midfield — which we really like — and the two center backs did a great job on Rufat throughout the night.”

In response to Sacramento manager Mark Briggs’ tactic of overloading ballside, Rising attempted to use diagonal balls to exploit the space left on the backside. But because Sacramento wouldn’t pressure Phoenix on the ball until PRFC was in Republic’s half, little to no space was left for the likes of Moar or Asante to do anything with the ball once receiving it.

“It’s always difficult when a team sits back,” Asante said. “It’s always difficult for us — very, very difficult. But we have good players, good wingers.”

That became evident on the stat sheet too, as Phoenix outshot Sacramento 20-9 but only mustered two on target, which doesn’t include Asante’s fifth-minute free kick that was saved by the post because a shot has to be deemed on trajectory going in to be counted as “on target.”

Conversely, Sacramento only managed to get one of its nine shots on target that came in the 23rd minute of the match. And after allowing an early goal in three of the last four matches, Rising goalkeeper Zac Lubin stepped up and made a big reaction foot save to keep the scoreline level at 0-0.

“I think it was huge because those have generally been going in and that’s a great way to get me in the game,” Lubin said. “It always helps to make a save, come out and snatch a ball — any way to play your way into the game.

“And that gives me the confidence to keep going. It’s like, ‘I’ve done my job and now I know these guys in front of my are going to score and they know I’m there behind them.'”

UP NEXT

Following Reno 1868 FC’s 4-1 win over LA Galaxy II on Saturday night, Phoenix will travel to Nevada next Saturday to face Reno in the Western Conference semifinals.

And as if Rising needed extra motivation in the playoffs, Reno is one of only three teams to have defeated PRFC in the regular season and 1868 FC is also the only team standing between Phoenix and homefield advantage throughout the postseason, including the USL Championship Final.

“We don’t need any more [motivation],” Lubin added. “We know we can go there and win and we can’t wait to get back home.

“We’re going to have a good gameplan and they’re a tough team, but I think we’re going to match up really well. We know what they want to do and we’ll figure it out.”

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and will be audio broadcasted live on ArizonaSports.com and on the new Arizona Sports app.