Rising finishes season unbeaten at home, wins West regular-season title
CHANDLER — For the second time in the three seasons, Phoenix Rising FC is the Western Conference regular-season champion.
PRFC accomplished that feat prior to its 1-1 draw against Tacoma Defiance at Wild Horse Pass on Saturday night after El Paso Locomotive FC lost to Rio Grande Valley FC.
And because of that result, RGV will be traveling to Phoenix to take on Rising in the first round of the 2021 USL Championship playoffs.
Coming into the match, PRFC needed a win combined with a Tampa Bay Rowdies loss in order to be crowned regular-season title winners and claim home-pitch advantage throughout the postseason, including the Final.
Tacoma also needed a win and Oakland Roots to drop points in order to capture the fourth and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
But with Tampa Bay and Oakland both winning on the day, it really left nothing to be played for and the beginning stages of Saturday night’s match reflected that.
“It was so difficult. The guys knew before the game started that El Paso had lost and the game theoretically was somewhat meaningless,” Phoenix Rising manager Rick Schantz said postgame. “But we tried to tell them we still had a shot at the No. 1 seed overall.
“But at the end of the day, being the best team in the West is massive for us. Those are things that we set out in the beginning of the year — that was another goal. So we said win the division, win the West and then get into the playoffs and get going and get started. So I think performance-wise you saw that in the first 15-20 minutes of the game. We weren’t really connected.”
It was another slow start from Phoenix out of the gate for the second consecutive week against a team playing with the desperation of its playoff hopes on the line.
Tacoma broke the deadlock a half hour into the match on some questionable defending by PRFC after a pinball mis-clearance from the combination of James Musa and Tate Schmitt led to Defiance forward Samuel Adeniran’s easy tap-in.
A look at Tacoma's goal. Questionable defending at best from #PRFC.
— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) October 31, 2021
“The goal they scored I think was a little bit of a fluke,” Schantz said. “It was a ball in behind, a cross that went off of our player and then back to a guy who was in an offside position and he finished.”
But once again super-sub Arturo Rodriguez was able to come on and make a difference, as the Mexican midfielder was able to bury the equalizer in the 70th minute off a Jon Bakero flicked-on ball from midfield to bring the match to its final scoreline of 1-1.
— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) October 31, 2021
Goalkeeper Andre Rawls continued to show why PRFC is 14W-6D-1L when he starts in net.
The Colorado Rapids loanee came up with four saves on the night, a few of which came in the dying minutes of the match in order to preserve both the draw and unbeaten streak at home.
— y-Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) October 31, 2021
“It was a battle from minute one. Tacoma needed to win to get into a playoff spot. They came in hungry but so were we,” Rawls said postgame. “The energy was loud in the locker room going into the match. They played how we expected. They sat in a bit, gave us more of the possession and were looking for counterattacks.
“We started slower than I would have liked to. The last regular-season game of the year, we would have liked to have finished with a statement win but still credit the effort. It’s not easy coming from behind after going down a goal.”
The draw also brings Phoenix’s record at Wild Horse Pass on the season to an unbeaten 11-5-0 — the first in club history — to match El Paso as the only teams to not suffer a loss at home this year.
Those metrics could pay major dividends for Rising, as the club has guaranteed home-pitch advantage throughout the Western Conference bracket and will only have to travel away to Tampa for the Final — any other Eastern Conference champion in the playoffs would have to come to the Valley.
“We just went undefeated at home through the whole season,” Schantz said. “We had the most points in the West. We finished with 68 goals and 67 points. Not a bad season. We scored more goals than any team in the United States, including MLS. I’m pretty proud of this team and they’re pretty confident. We know what we’re capable of.”
PRFC’s David Loera rolled his ankle and had to be carried/helped off the pitch. Schantz said his ankle swelled up a little bit and he was placed in a game-ready compression boot to hopefully be ready by next week.
Phoenix Rising will host RGV in the first round of the playoffs on Nov. 6.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Catch the audio stream on ArizonaSports.com and the Arizona Sports app.