Phoenix Rising FC travel to Chukchansi Park in Fresno, California to play Fresno FC on Saturday, September 21, 2019. It is the second and final USL Championship regular season match-up of the year between these two clubs who are currently at the top of the Western Conference table. Phoenix comes into the match on a 20-game-winning-streak, which is now twice the previous USL Championship league record. They have not lost or drawn since May 4, 2019, and are coming off a 4-1 victory over LA Galaxy II last Saturday. With 71 points, they have an 18 point advantage over 2nd place Reno 1868 FC and 3rd place Fresno, who are tied at 53 (it should be noted that Reno has 1 additional game played, and Fresno 1 fewer game played than Phoenix). With a win on Saturday, combined with a loss by Indy Eleven in the Eastern Conference, Phoenix can clinch the best overall record in the USL Championship.
Fresno has had an outstanding season in their own right, and have only lost 5 games all season. They have stumbled slightly of late, with 2 of those losses coming in their past 5 matches, but their most recent result was a 5-0 thrashing of Rio Grande Valley Toros on Wednesday. This of course means that The Foxes will come into Saturday's match on just 2 days rest, and it will be interesting to see how their manager Adam Smith handles managing their lineup. Prior to Wednesday, Freno's previous 3 matches included a win over Reno, one of the best teams in the conference, and losses to Las Vegas Lights FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC, two of the worst teams in the conference. Even going back to early June, one of Fresno's other losses came against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, another bottom of the table team, which seems to point to Fresno being a team with a tendency to play to the level of its competition. Furthermore, this is an especially important game for Fresno in terms of the battle for 2nd place in the table. An upset of Phoenix would put them 3 points clear of Reno, with a game in hand, an equal number of victories, and an advantage in goal differential.
Fresno FC vs Phoenix Rising Vital Information
Referee assignments have the referee as Elton Garcia, with Michael Kampmeinert and Justin Fillmore as the assistants, and Turan Ozdemir as the 4th official. On the discipline report, neither team has anyone suspended, but Phoenix does have Kevon Lambert under caution, as is Fresno's Christian Chaney, and the next booking for either will result in a one-game-suspension.
This will be the 4th meeting all time between the Fresno FC and Phoenix Rising. In the previous 3 meetings, Phoenix has won 0 times, Fresno has won 1 time, and there has been 2 draws. It was a 0-0 draw at Casino Arizona Field in Arizona the last time that they met on April 6, 2019. The last time that they met in Fresno, the Foxes gave Phoenix a 4-0 drubbing on July 14, 2018.
Five Points That Shouldn’t be Overlooked
Phoenix's 77 goals scored this season are now a league record, and with 5 games still to play (it should be noted that Reno's previous record of 75 was set in the 2017 season that had a 32 game schedule). Their +51 goal differential is now 11 better than the previous league record of +40 that was set by New York Red Bulls II in 2016, meaning that they will set that mark baring an unprecedented meltdown over the last 5 matches. A win tonight, would be their 23rd of the season, and the would tie the league record set by FC Cincinnati last season. With the league's best record just about wrapped up, these last 5 games provide two opportunities to the club. One of those is to make this not only a record setting season, but one where they set a lot of records that won't be broken for a very long time. The other, is the opportunity to rest key players going into the playoffs. Given the depth of roster that they have shown, I think they can accomplish both of those feats. The other thing to watch will be Solomon Asante's pursuit of the all-time single season scoring record. He needs 3 goals to tie it, and 4 to break it.
This season is just Fresno's 2nd in the USL, but in just one year they have gone from one of the worst teams in the league, to one of the best. They have a deep roster, with 14 players who have scored at least once for them this year, but are lead by a big 3 of Jaime Chavez, Qudus Lawal, and Jemal Johnson. This trio has combined for 27 goals on the season, Chavez leading the way with 11. Looking at their recent matches, it appears that only one of Lawal or Johnson usually start the game, with the other subbing on late usually. On Tuesday, it was Lawal getting the start, with Johnson subbing on for the last 25 minutes. I would expect that given the usual rotation that we will see Johnson in the starting lineup tonight, with Lawal subbing on at some point in the 2nd half (although not necessarily directly for Johnson). However, Lawal did record a brace on Wednesday, so it's possible that Adam Smith may look to ride the hot hand tonight.
Taking a look at the betting line, is something that will be eye opening, if not downright shocking to most folks who have been following Phoenix. That is that the odds have Fresno favored, although by the most fractional of margins. How fractional? Well, a bet on Phoenix to win would pay back $24.50 on a $10 bet (your original $10, plus winnings of $24.50). A bet on Fresno to win will pay back $24. In other words, this is the bookmakers way of saying that we have no idea who is going to win. Or are they? When the bookmakers set a line like this, it usually means they are hoping to get about an equal amount bet on each side, and make their money off the people who bet draw (Or to have collected enough on both sides to pay out the draw if it happens). I don't think that's what this is though. Due to the long winning streak Phoenix has become what is known as "a public team" by gambling terms. In other words, certain teams like Manchester United for example will naturally have more money bet on them by amateur gamblers, simply based on name recognition. By offering a larger than even money payout on a team that's on a 20 game winning streak, this has "sucker bet" written all over it. In other words, I am reading this line to be that the pros are betting big that the streak will end tonight.
If Fresno is to pull the upset tonight, it is going to start with them needing to shut down Phoenix's high powered offense. They have already proven capable of doing so, in holding Phoenix to the 0-0 draw back in April, but that was also a Phoenix team that had not quite gelled into the unit that they are now. That being said, if anyone is capable of doing it in the Western Conference, it is likely Fresno. Goalkeeper C.J. Cochran has been outstanding for them this season. He has started all 28 games for them so far, and has a 69% save percentage, a 1.11 goals allowed per 90 minutes, and 7 clean sheets. These are all really good stats, but to give an idea of just how good Zac Lubin has been for Phoenix this year, his numbers are a 79% save percentage, 0.72 goals per 90, and 13 clean sheets. In front of Cochran is as solid of a pairing of center-backs as you can get. Ramon Martin del Campo is their iron man, having played all 2520 minutes so far this season, and with 3 goals has the ability to get forward as well. Michael Daly is not far behind with 2385 minutes played, meaning you can't count on both of these guys to be on the field all night. Both Daly and del Campo are in their 2nd year with Fresno as well, meaning that they have built a level of chemistry that is not often seen at this level.
In what is usually a positive and strictly numbers based article, I cannot go without mentioning the events that happened at Casino Arizona Field last Friday night. I was at the game, but had left the main supporters stands by the time the objects were thrown onto the field. Today, I was further disappointed as watching a game between Accrington Stanley F.C. and Blackpool F.C., not only bottles but a lit flare were thrown onto the field during the game. This was the second time in as many years that Blackpool supporters traveling to Accrington have thrown objects at Accrington goalkeeper Dimitar Evtimov, (addition to coins). We actually had a chance to speak with Evtimov on the subject Thursday in an interview that is due out tomorrow, and will get additional comments from him based on today's happenings. At the end of the day, whether you are in Arizona or England, these actions are completely inappropriate and should not be a part of the game. Especially when children are present. At the end of the day, you can "hate" the opposing team as much as you want, but the opposing players are human beings who are doing their jobs. I can only imagine how these people throwing things onto the pitch would react if they were at their job with thousands of people screaming "fuck off" and "you suck" all day, much less having things thrown at them. I just don't get it. Bang your drums, drink your beers, blow your vuvuzelas, scream fuck off as loud as you possibly can for 90 minutes straight if you want, BUT DON'T THROW THINGS ON THE PITCH!!!
Fresno FC vs Phoenix Rising Prediction
As I have mentioned above, there are a lot of reasons to think that tonight might be the night the streak comes to an end. Even the oddsmakers who make a living off of knowing these things seem to think so. That being said, I think this team has something special that transcends trends, numbers, and odds. With a line like this I would stay away from the Sports Book tonight, but perhaps Blackjack is the name of the game because tonight I think the streak hits 21.
Prediction: Phoenix Rising - 3 Fresno FC - 1