Phoenix Rising FC (Arizona Sports/Ashley Orellana)
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For the second time in three seasons, Phoenix Rising FC is headed to the USL Championship Final.
PRFC defeated El Paso Locomotive FC 1-1 AET (4-2 on penalties) in Saturday night’s Western Conference Final at Casino Arizona Field.
Phoenix Rising’s Zac Lubin was the hero once again, as the goalkeeper recorded five saves including the only penalty that was saved in the shootout.
Were it not for yet another Man of the Match performance by Lubin, PRFC’s season could have very easily come to an end on Saturday night.
In his first match back from his three-week administrative leave, Phoenix Rising manager Rick Schantz made two changes to his starting XI in center back Damion Lowe and midfielder Jordan Schweitzer starting in place of A.J. Cochran and Jon Bakero, respectively.
In fact, those exact two subs were made in the opening 15 minutes of the second half by interim manager Blair Gavin in last week’s Western Conference semifinal away to Reno 1868 FC and proved to pay dividends as PRFC completed the two-goal comeback to advance on penalties.
The idea behind having two No. 6’s like Lambert and Schweitzer is the duo’s ability to win the ball back against a team like El Paso that likes to dominate possession.
On Saturday night, El Paso led Phoenix in possession (57%-43%), passes (616-471), pass completion percentage (81%-75%), shots on target (6-4). Locomotive FC also led in fouls (20-17) and yellow cards (7-3). However, Phoenix would end up outshooting El Paso 20-15 and had more corners (5-4).
Coming into the match, El Paso had been unbeaten in its last 13 matches including the playoffs. In fact, Locomotive FC’s last loss before Saturday night came to Phoenix back on Aug. 1. However, both teams were considerably different in the previous fixture, a 3-1 Rising win at Casino Arizona Field.
Compared to the last contest between the two, Rising came out with an entirely new goalkeeper and back four in terms of position by position, as only Corey Whelan and Darnell King played against El Paso last time out as a center back and right back, respectively. The duo has been the team’s starting right and left backs for quite some time now.
Schweitzer wasted no time making the most of his spot start. Just 18 minutes into the match, the midfielder ripped a shot with his left foot from 25 yards out that took a deflection and hit the underside of the crossbar before going over the line to give Phoenix an early 1-0 lead.
Moments before the halftime whistle, Lambert nearly doubled Rising’s advantage from a corner. The Jamaican was able to get on the end of the cross, but his header was denied by the crossbar.
But just before the hour mark, El Paso would get its equalizer that it genuinely deserved. In the 59th minute, Locomotive’s Bryam Rebellón received a ball that trickled across PRFC’s box and put it in the top corner to bring the match to level pegging at 1-1.
Phoenix thought it had taken the lead thanks to Rufat Dadashov’s goal in the 115th minute. However, the Azerbaijani was correctly ruled offside and therefore the goal was disallowed.
After a third consecutive extra time game, PRFC has now played an entire match’s worth of minutes in extra time alone. Therefore, Phoenix has played four games’ worth of minutes in its last three contests.
Phoenix Rising will travel away to the Tampa Bay Rowdies for the USL Championship Final on Nov. 1.
Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be audio broadcasted live on ArizonaSports.com and on the new Arizona Sports app.