Phoenix Rising FC (10-7-7, 37 pts., 7th in West) vs. Real Monarchs SLC (17-4-5, 56 pts., 1st in West)
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, Scottsdale
TV: YouTube, YurView Arizona (Cox 4, 1004 HD in Phoenix; Cox 7, 1007 HD in Tucson)
Phoenix Rising FC finds itself in the enviable position of hosting one of the biggest games of the season Saturday night when the Western Conference leaders, Real Monarchs SLC, make their only visit to the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex.
Phoenix Rising comes into contest on a major high, unbeaten in its last seven contests. A big road win last Saturday against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC moved Phoenix Rising into seventh place in the Western Conference. A late goal by substitute A.J. Gray led Phoenix Rising to the victory. Gray’s goal earned him USL Goal of the Week honors for Week 25.
But it was the play of left back Victor Vasquez that caught the eyes of the league this week. Vasquez’s great play over two matches last week earned the defender Team of the Week honors, with Gray named to the bench for the week. It’s the third straight week a Phoenix Rising player has made the Team of the Week.
But even bigger than those honors was the announcement Wednesday that striker Didier Drogba had returned to the pitch at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex. Drogba returned from London this week, where he had surgery to repair an injured groin. Drogba could find his way onto the pitch Saturday in this critical home match before a four-match, 14 day road trip that will most likely seal Phoenix Rising’s fate for the 2017 playoffs.
Despite not finding the back of the net last week, Jason Johnson remains the team’s scoring leader with seven goals on the season, and Drogba has scored five times in just nine appearances for the club this season. Chris Cortez and Kody Wakasa are the team’s leaders in assists with three each. And Josh Cohen made his return three matches ago and has posted two clean sheets in the last three matches.
This is the third time the teams have met this season. The first time these two teams met, it was the second game of the season and Phoenix Rising had just come off a 1-0 loss to Toronto FC 2 to open the season. Phoenix Rising looked out of sorts in Utah, and looked lackluster on offense in a 2-0 Real Monarchs victory. Chandler Hoffman scored in first half stoppage time, and substitute Omar Holness added an insurance goal in the second half to give Real Monarchs an early season win.
The last time these teams met on April 15, Daniel Haber opened up the scoring 12 minutes into the match, but is was Omar Bravo who scored his only USL goal on a penalty kick in the final minute of the first half to preserve a 1-1 draw.
Real Monarchs come in winless in its last two contests, a 2-1 loss to San Antonio FC on Sept. 2 and a 0-0 draw with Portland Timbers 2 last Saturday. Real Monarchs was the first team in the USL to obtain a spot in the 2017 playoffs, and they don’t have any signs of slowing down the stretch.
Hoffman leads the team with 14 goals and seven assists on the season and is one of the top candidates for USL League MVP. Sebastian Velasquez has eight goals and seven assists on the season, and Daniel Haber has six goals on the season. Charlie Adams has seven assists to tie for the team lead with Hoffman. And the goaltending tandem of Connor Sparrow and Lalo Fernandez have teamed up to allow just 24 of the team’s 27 goals allowed this season, and have eight clean sheets on the season.
Phoenix Rising comes into the match 7-3-2 at home on the season, while Real Monarchs comes into the match 6-3-3 on the road, so something may have to give in this all-important match.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI (4-2-3-1)
D- Vasquez (L), Ramage (C), Stewart (C), Wakasa (R)
DM- Lambert (L), Gavin (R)
MF- Riggi (L), Wright-Phillips (C), Johnson (R)
POSSIBLE SUBSTITUTES: GK- Berner; D- Mala; MF- Dia, Watson, Hamilton, Awako; F- Drogba