Phoenix Rising FC (17-8-7) at Swope Park Rangers (17-8-7)
5:30 p.m. Saturday, Children’s Mercy Victory Field, Kansas City, Missouri
TV: YouTube, YurView Arizona (Cox 4, 1004 HD in Phoenix; Cox 7, 1007 HD in Tucson)
One of the most intriguing first round matches in the USL playoffs takes place Saturday when Phoenix Rising FC travels to Kansas City to take on Swope Park Rangers.
Two of the most evenly matched teams in the league this season, both come into the match with 17-8-7 records. Swope Park scored five more goals on the season than Phoenix did, and both teams only conceded 37 goals in 32 matches played.
Phoenix won the season series 1-0-1 this season, taking a 4-3 victory on April 23, while playing to a 2-2 draw in Kansas City on June 18.
The game in April saw Phoenix score three goals in a five minute span, and by the 47th minute they had added a fourth. A Kody Wakasa red card saw Swope Park use the extra man to their advantage, scoring three goals in the match’s final 20 minutes.
When the teams met again in June, they traded goals, with Kevin Oliveira scoring first, and Didier Drogba answering back for Phoenix. Nansel Selbol would score in the second half to give Swope Park the lead again, only to see Drogba answer back just prior to stoppage time to level the match.
Let’s take a look at each position and the players that may play there:
Phoenix Rising has two capable goalkeepers in Josh Cohen and Carl Woszczynski, but it will be Cohen that gets the nod in net. Cohen was 10th in the league in saves with 77, and conceded 31 goals in 27 matches played.
The main keeper for Swope Park is Adrian Zendejas, who has been on the Sporting KC roster all season, but has never appeared for SKC. Due to the injury to Tim Melia, Zendejas has been with Sporting KC the last few games and may very well be again. That would leave Darrin MacLeod to start, who has just four appearances on the season.
Edge: Phoenix Rising FC
Phoenix Rising will draw most likely six defenders. The decisions will be at left back, whether to go with Amadou Dia or Victor Vasquez, and on the right with either Kody Wakasa or Jordan Gibbons. Expect to see Jordan Stewart and Peter Ramage in central defense, as that pairing has been tough throughout the season when together. Douegui Mala has been a pleasant surprise on defense, but could be the odd man out in a defensive setting.
There are six defenders in play to fill four spots for Swope Park. The right back will be Colton Storm, Sporting KC’s 2017 MLS SuperDraft first round pick. The left back will be Tyler Pasher or Parker Maher, with Pasher also being a SKC loanee who has 24 appearances with SPR (and one with SKC). At center back it’s likely to be Amer Didic (2016 USL All-League First Team) and Oumar Ballo, unless Didic stays with SKC to ride the bench as he’s done all season. If that happens, Liam Doyle will replace him.
Phoenix Rising has a couple of tough decisions here. While Kevon Lambert will most likely be one of the two holding midfielders, coach Patrice Carteron has to decide between Blair Gavin, Matt Watson or Sam Hamilton to occupy the other starting spot. Carteron also has decisions in the attacking midfield, especially if he chooses to move Didier Drogba into a central midfield role, as we have seen in the past three matches played. If he makes that move, look for Alessandro Riggi and Shaun Wright-Phillips to move to the wings. And if Drogba moves to the top in an attacking role, look for Gladson Awako to possibly find his way into the central midfield role.
This is another area in flux for Swope Park based on Sporting KC loans. One surefire starter is Christian Duke, who has started all 32 games at the No. 8 destroyer role. The likely defensive midfielder is James Musa, but he also signed an SKC contract this year (though he has just a single appearance). If Musa is with SKC, 17-year-old Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, the Malaysian Messi, will be the defensive midfielder. The biggest question is at attacking midfield. Kevin Oliveira was a star in 2016 but has been plagued with injuries in 2017. If he’s with SKC again, 18-year-old Academy product Felipe Hernandez will start.
Edge: Phoenix Rising FC
Phoenix Rising could go one of two ways at the top. They could go with Drogba at the top, or if Drogba plays the central No. 10 role, Jason Johnson will find his way to the top of the formation. Chris Cortez will be a solid move off the bench if a late sub is needed, and is a dependable two-play player depending on the score.
For Swope Park, Lebo Moloto, midfielder turned center forward, will get the start at the No. 9 role. On the wings the likely candidates are the highest goal scorers Kharlton Belmar (14) and Nansel Selbol (9). Belmar has been with Sporting KC a lot lately but seems likely to get loaned back down since he has just six minutes with the senior team.
Edge: Swope Park Rangers
Carteron has turned this team around completely since joining the club in early June. His 13-3-7 record is one of the top records in the league through that time frame, and earning nine clean sheets shows his commitment to defense. In those 23 matches, Phoenix Rising has conceded just 15 goals.
Nikola Popovic is the first year head coach of Swope Park and replaces Marc Dos Santos, who led the club to the USL Cup Final in his first and only year as coach. Popovic was an assistant under Dos Santos and hasn’t missed a beat since taking over. Like all clubs in the Sporting KC organization he runs the 4-3-3 system, but he’s really put his spin on it by playing a false nine instead of a true center forward a lot this year.
Phoenix Rising is 6-5-5 away from home, while Swope Park Rangers finished 11-2-3 at Children’s Mercy Victory Field. SPR completed a league-high 13,778 passes during the regular season, and had a league-high 83 percent accuracy rate. Swope Park has never defeated Phoenix Rising, as the teams also drew in 2016. Saturday’s center referee will be Guido Gonzalez Jr. Gonzalez has refereed nine matches in the USL this season, and has issued four red cards and 50 yellow cards. Jeremy Kieso and Matthew Seem are the ARs, and Matt Miller is the fourth official.
Firebird Rising’s Chad Smith provided additional reporting for this article.