PHOENIX – After capping a run of 10 games in 36 days from the start of September with a 2-0 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC this past Saturday night, taking the chance for a few days of rest and relaxation was the first order for Phoenix Rising FC as it entered the final week of the 2017 USL regular season.
When the focus returns to the field, however, Rising FC Head Coach Patrice Carteron will be looking at Saturday’s contest with the Portland Timbers 2 as a dress rehearsal for the first postseason game in the club’s history.
“I think the game against Portland will be for me the way to prepare the team for the playoff,” said Carteron after Saturday’s win against the Toros. “Starting from now I think everything will be different because I knew we had many games to play, every three days; I needed most of the players. But right now we must be ready and we are going to have a special preparation for the playoff game.”
After Wednesday night’s contests saw the Swope Park Rangers take victory against T2 in their final regular season game, leaving Phoenix needing a nine-goal victory to move past the Rangers into fourth place in the Western Conference, the odds appear in favor of a trip to Children’s Mercy Victory Field in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
But having earned a 1-0-1 record against Swope Park in the regular season series between the teams, including a 2-2 draw on June 18 in Kansas City that saw Didier Drogba score twice, Phoenix certainly should be ready for what awaits it next weekend.
With the camaraderie the side has developed while going 10-1-3 since the start of August, Rising FC is enjoying the collective success the second half of the season has brought.
“We get stuck into each other at practice but we’re all friends off the field and I think that’s important,” said midfielder Matt Watson. “I have a great relationship with all of them, probably the midfield little gang is like my favorite guys on the team, and whether I’m playing or I’m not playing I’m gonna support them no matter what.”
Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
One player who has clearly grown in confidence during Phoenix’s strong run of form is Jason Johnson, who moved to 13 goals this season with three goals in Week 29 that earned him a place on the USL Team of the Week. The Jamaican is having a major bounce-back season after scoring only three goals a season ago for San Antonio FC. Averaging a goal every 130 minutes in 2017, Johnson has helped propel Rising FC into the top 10 in goals scored this season with 46 going into Saturday’s game.
“Jason is a fantastic player,” said Carteron. “He has great potential. He needed to work, he needed to have maybe more confidence also. Step by step he is just becoming an amazing player. Every time he is on the field he is so powerful, he’s scoring goals and we are so happy to have him with us.”
While Johnson has helped carry the attack, Rising FC goalkeeper Josh Cohen and the side’s defense have been the principle reason for the club’s success. With six shutouts in the month of September, which saw Cohen earn nomination for the USL Player of the Month award for September last week, the third-year professional is looking forward to his second trip to the playoffs after helping Orange County SC to the postseason a year ago.
Bringing the experience of a big upset victory that saw No. 8-seed Orange County knock off last year’s Western Conference No. 1-seed Sacramento Republic FC in a penalty shootout, Cohen has his own points of emphasis that could help Phoenix maintain its momentum into the postseason.
"I think the playoffs create an energy of themselves, and a lot of it is not letting that affect your start too much,” said Cohen after Saturday’s game. “You just want to be consistent and be strong going in. I think we have the leadership experience on the team to deal with that really well.”
As far as the team has come since Carteron’s arrival midseason, the team is still striving for the upper reaches of what might be possible over the next month.
“As I said to the players, we must improve,” said Carteron. “What I am really happy about now for many weeks is that offensively we now also have very good potential. We feel that even when it’s not a good day like today, we have the feeling that any moment we can score and we have many players who can score. I’m happy about the way we are playing right now, about the potential of the team. That’s why for me the work now will be the preparation for the playoff game.”