Phoenix Rising FC travel to Greater Nevada Field in Reno, NV to play Reno 1868 on Saturday, October 17, 2020 in the USL Championship Western Conference Playoff Semi-Finals. Beyond that, I will spare much of the usual spiel on table standings and such because all the really matters now is win or go home. Reno, the number one overall seed in the USL Championship playoffs are at home, and will be as long as they keep winning. For Phoenix, the overall number 2 seed, winning tonight means they would host any matches going forward. The winner of this game will host the winner of the New Mexico United at El Paso Locomotive match that kicks off Saturday at 6:30 PM Arizona time. Of course the winner of that match will face whoever emerges from the Eastern Conference, all four of whom (Charleston Battery at Tampa Bay Rowdies/St. Louis at Louisville City) play Saturday at 4:30 PM Arizona Time. Phoenix comes in off of a tough opening round 1-0 win over Sacramento Republic, while Reno, currently the hottest team in the league, made fairly easy work of Los Angeles Galaxy II, winning 4-1. Reno comes in on an 11-game-unbeaten run (8-3-0), and haven't lost a match since August 12, 2020. This unbeaten run coincides with forward Foster Langsdorf's (who we will talk more about later) torrid run of form that has seen him score in 10 out of those 11 matches. This streak includes Reno's 2-1 win over Phoenix, at Greater Nevada Field on August 29, which was the only times these clubs met during the regular season. A 2-3 loss to San Diego Loyal at home is Phoenix's only loss since, thus meaning both clubs come in at, or near their best form of this year so far.
Conference semifinals!— x-Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) October 17, 2020
⏰ 6:00 p.m.
📍 Greater Nevada Field
📻 ESPN 620AM
📺 @CW61Arizona // @abc15 app
MATCHDAY HQ: https://t.co/KLL0l05VDj#RisingTogether | 2020 Playoffs presented by @AzCHealthPlan pic.twitter.com/s2d662wvwc
Reno 1868 vs Phoenix Rising Vital Information
This is a televised match, and and can be viewed on ESPN Plus in the United States. The match is at 6:00 PM Arizona time on Saturday, October 17, 2020.
Referee assignments have Kevin Broadley as the referee, the assistants are Ryan Graves and Justin Howard, with Brandon Stevis as the 4th official. Neither team has any players on the league discipline report.
This will be the 8th meeting all time between Phoenix Rising and Reno. In the previous 7 meetings, Phoenix has won 3 times, Reno has won 2 times, and there has been 2 draws. Phoenix Rising were the victors in both 2019 matches, winning 3-0 at Reno on June 18, 2019, and a 4-2 PRFC victory at Casino Arizona Field on August 16, 2019.
The Lead Story
If you are reading this article in the first place, then there is a good chance that you already know that there was some controversy regarding the "circumstances" of the winning goal that was scored by Solomon Asante against Sacramento. Now, before I get started I am going to say this. Is it ideally the way that you want to win? Of course not. Will I take it? HELL YEAH I'LL TAKE IT! First of all, to those of you in the "he should have reported the handball to the referee" crowd. Get Outta Here! Good enough for Maradona, good enough for Henry, good enough for Asante. Nuff said. Where the real argument comes in here involves the lack of VAR or instant replay technology in the USL. Again, if you are in the "it's some criminal injustice to its fans that the USL doesn't have VAR" crowd. You can Get Outta Here! too.
In case you aren't familiar with world soccer, most leagues don't have VAR, especially in the 2nd tier. That's not what I care about though, because I am solidly in the crowd that thinks VAR should just stay as far away from whatever league I am watching as possible. And more and more I am beginning to think that should apply to all sports.
Like anyone else, my opinions aren't always going to be right, but I do strive to always be consistent. For example, that is the reason I have been so staunch in my request for accountability from both the club and Junior Flemmings. After all, I could not have written the following ("It would have been very easy for any member of the Galaxy II playing or coaching staff to take a stand against their teammate/players's actions and demand his removal from the game. Unfortunately, the actions of the Los Angeles Galaxy II players and coaching staff showed that time standing together was nothing more than a hollow action.") in my September 26th article, and not ask for the same accountability from my club.
That being said, there are times when my opinion can change over time, and that is where I am going with this. I have been on record many times as saying that I thought VAR (instant replay) was a good thing in some sports, but not in association football. At this point, I am beginning to just think it's not a good thing in sports at all, and is more one of those matters of just because you can with technology, doesn't mean you should.
The reason why is because the beautiful thing about sports, even at the highest professional level is the human element. Now I don't watch much professional golf, but I know that one of the reasons that people who do watch is because even the best professional can miss a 3-foot-putt that we would make 99 times out of 100 to lose a tournament. It's that human element that makes it exciting. Ultimately referee mistakes are part of that human element that has always historically been part of sports. In other words, even the best referee in the world is going to blow a call sometimes, and when that happens, it should stand.
Now I know you are probably wondering "why shouldn't we get the call right if we can", which is obviously a valid point, but stay with me here for a minute. It's not that we shouldn't be getting every call right that we can, it's that there are 2 major problems with VAR that ultimately make it do more harm than good, not just in football, but all sports. One of them has to do with taking away the human element which I will get to later, but the first is the fact that any replay system will already be flawed. In the most basic terms what I am saying is that if all you are ever going to do is replaced one flawed system with another then I would rather rely on one that has flaws that seem natural (ie. the referee didn't see the infraction), than one that is going to both impede the natural flow of the game and produce artificial flaws such as the one I am about to describe in the next paragraph.
Before I get to the example, the primary issue here is that there are always going to be procedural issues or limitations on the replay process that will still create artificial outcomes, and that no system is going to ever get every call right. Let's start with the second one first because it is more simplistic and doesn't specifically relate to my example. The reason that no system is ever going to get every call right can easily be illustrated with an example from the National Football League (American Football). One of the favorite cliches of every American football commentator is "holding is a penalty that can be called on every play, but the ref happened to see that one". Ok, well if that is the case then shouldn't we be reviewing every play to see if there was a holding and calling it? Of course that can't happen because coaches are limited to 3 replay challenges a game, AND holding isn't even a challengeable penalty! Now, I know what you are going to say next, "the replays are only to challenge the important things". Fair, but who is to judge what is important and what is not over the course of a game. According to this recent article by the Washington Post a lack of holding penalties is "the most likely cause" that teams are scoring at a record pace this year, AND teams are successful 50% less of the time after such a penalty. Sounds important to me, so if we aren't reviewing this then why are we reviewing anything?
Now, it that was the only problem I could buy into the idea that catching some things and fixing them is still better if you can't catch everything, but that just isn't the case. This is where we get to both the problem with eliminating the human element, and also how fallacies in the system create other unwanted results. This is also where we get to the example I have been mentioning. Before we get there, I know I am throwing a lot of different sports at you here, and also that this section is running long, but I think this is more interesting then spending the next 500 words telling you about what formation I think Phoenix is going to play tonight. If you want that there are plenty of places to find it, or I have written at length about tactics and players in my previous articles.
Moving forward the example I have been promising comes from an Atlanta Braves vs LA Dodgers baseball game that I heard on the radio the other day. I don't recall what game it was in the series, and I didn't actually see it because as I mentioned I was listening on the radio, but here is what was described to me. First, if you don't all ready know, in baseball, a ball that is thrown by the pitcher and hits the batsmen allows that batsmen to advance to 1st base. However, the batsmen cannot intentionally move into the ball. In the game I was listening to LA's Corey Seager was ruled to have not been hit by a pitch, a call that was challenged by Los Angeles. In this situation, the commentator described it that the ball did hit Seager, however, in the words of the commentator he very clearly "kicked at it like a soccer ball", thus an infraction that should have not allowed him to claim first base. However, (and this was verified) in baseball's replay rulebook whether or not the ball hit the batter is challengeable, but apparently by some oversight, whether or not the batter moved into the ball intentionally is not reviewable. Long story short, Seager was awarded the base in this situation, thus overturning a correct call on the field because of a technicality of the replay rules. Now, obviously this particular rule can be rewritten in the offseason, but I am sure you can understand what kind of can of worms this could be in any sport, and how many times replay codes will have to be rewritten. Which is a problem in itself, because if you are rewriting the replay rules every year (something that usually really does happen in most sports that have replay) then you are giving an inconsistent set of rules year by year, something that ultimately degrades the integrity of league records. AND THIS ISN'T EVEN THE WORST PART!
What I mean by the worst part is that so far what I have done is to establish what the problems are with VAR (instant replay), now when we bring back in that whole human element I've been talking about. What I am getting by this is that the better system is the one that we have had all along, the one where the only mistakes that "usually" happen are those natural kind like just didn't see it. This is something I have been overall consistent on, and you can look back through my articles, (yes I was hard on Malik Baldawi about 4 minutes of phantom stoppage time because I am not saying that officials shouldn't be held to a high standard, and that is different than a split second error) is that when a call goes against PRFC I don't usually get too fired up about it, because that is that nature of sports. Or in other words, you have to take the good with the bad.
So we have already established the problems with instant replay, and the problems of not instant replay are self explanatory. Ultimately though, what it adds up to is that both are going to give you missed calls. Furthermore, when taking into consideration examples like Seager's kicked pitch ending up with a right call being turned into a wrong call, it's not even conclusive that we are getting more of the calls right with replay. Especially, when you take into consideration that most calls in most sports are judgement calls. What I mean by this is that the rules are generally not clear cut enough to not involve some kind of human judgement. Whether the ball went out of bounds or is an example of a non-judgement call, either the ball went out, or it didn't. If every call was like this then replay would work great, unfortunately, especially in football, most are not. I mean after all, if human judgement wasn't needed then why do don't we even have a ref on the pitch, and not just a bunch of guys watching videos of the game somewhere?
Its because just like its easy to criticize a manager for making a substitution (a decision you did see), while having no idea what happened on the training pitch that week (something only the manager saw), much of officiating goes beyond the call that is being made when the whistle blows. What I mean by this is the average referee is doing a lot of observing and listening during the game to be able to make a correct judgement of what should or shouldn't be called. To explain this better, let's look at the problem of "robot referees" and why it just wouldn't work. To go back to our holding in American Football example above, it's a penalty the by the letter of the law could probably be called on every play, but there is a recent it isn't, and also why it only seems to be called a key times. Now, if you were to have a robot referee for example watching each player on every play and calling strictly by the letter of the law then it would end up with exactly just that. There would be a holding penalty called on every play, and it would ruin the game.
The reason is because a human referee has the ability to make the judgement when to make the call at the proper time. In other words, let's say that the referee observes that the left tackle commits what is by the letter of the law a holding penalty, but the play goes to the right for no positive yardage. In that case the infraction hasn't effected the outcome of the play, so the ref can let that slide. On the other hand, if the left tackle makes the same holding penalty and the play is a run left off that goes for 50 yards then its going to be a flag. To further this example, a ref might see that a player is committing "borderline" holding on every play, maybe he lets it slide the first and second time, but the third time he sees it then it's going to be a penalty. These are examples of how a human referee can manage a game.
This also comes into play with things like deciding between a yellow or a red card. Now, everyone know by now that every foul looks worse in slow motion than in real time, so that alone is a problem. Furthering this problem though is taking away the human element of knowing what was happening on the pitch. Now, I know that "intent" isn't specifically worded into the rules when determining whether something should be a yellow card or a red card by The Laws of the Game, but let's look at it this way. If player x kicks player y in the knee while kicking at the ball which is something that can go for a yellow or a red depending on "how dangerous or out control it was". Now the replay can tell you something about that play in the moment but, the referee on the field is going to know things like "player x took two smaller fouls that I let slide earlier, so that's going to be a send off", or "he has played really clean all match, it going to be a strong yellow but he can stay on for now". Let's just call this common sense refereeing.
Ok, so now we have established why sometimes the human element of the referee might have the information to make the decision based on all of the facts. Now, let's finish up by looking at the human element of how a replay decision can effect the players artificially. This last one I am going to need you to take a little bit of a leap with me on because it's hard to quantify with stats, but I promise you it exists. Now usually I am one to err on the side of science, but in this case I have to say the scientist are wrong. What I am talking about is momentum, or "form" as it is most often referred to in the beautiful game.
Now if you have watched any amount of sports in your life, you know that momentum exists. It's just a little bit different than what the scientists are trying to find. In my opinion, there are 2 factors that have to do with form or momentum. The simpler of the two, and the one that has more to do with long term form or momentum is health. I haven't specifically researched this, but I think it would be a safe bet that you will find that teams generally have their winning streaks coincide with their least injuries. Less obvious to the eye though, and the ones that have more to do with individual form though are the injuries that guys are playing though. If you know anything about professional sports then you already know the list of guys playing through injuries, (especially late in the season) is everyone. I tend to feel that when players are in "good form" that it probably just means they are lucky enough to not be fighting a lot of nagging injuries at that point. Athletes are (here's that human element again) human after all, and competing at this level injuries are going to happen. I mean think about if you step on somebodies foot and twist your ankle. What does it take? A week? 10 days before that feels 100% again? Now imagine how often soccer players do that. Hell, last night I tried to pull a blanket out from behind myself, fell out of bed, and twisted my shoulder a bit. When I show up at the ballpark tomorrow nobody is going to know that, they are just going to see that my fastball is 3 mph slower than normal. Long story short here is that injuries effect form, but this isn't the important part because it doesn't have to do with replay.
The part that does, and the magic "intangible ingredient" to momentum is confidence. When a team of player is in a good run of form it isn't because of the "scientific momentum" thing. It's simply because they believe in themselves more. It goes back to that whole thing of visualizing the ball going into the net before you take a PK. If you are going up there and the goalie looks 10 feet tall to you then you have already missed the shot before you have taken it. Where I am going with this is that replay artificially swings "momentum" in a game by giving a team and artificial confidence boost by having a call overturned in their favor. What I mean by this is that throughout the match or even season there is a series of games within the game if you will. For each game within the the game your confidence either goes up or goes down vs failure or success.
To start with something small, let's look at a dribble. Say that you receive the ball and try to dribble past the defender and the ball gets stolen. Your confidence goes down a bit. Then, let's say 5 minutes later you get the ball again, dribble and ball gets stolen. Your confidence goes down even more, and at that point you are probably just going to pass and not even try it again. The flip side of that of course is that for every successful dribble you make, your confidence is going to go up, and in turn you are going to have confidence to keep trying. This is a rudimentary example, but the point that I am getting toward is that there are both team and individual moments like this throughout the game. Some are much bigger than others. For example I would think in soccer than saving a penalty kick would the biggest one I can think of. In this situation you are thinking that you have almost certainly conceded and getting that save is a breath of life. I haven't done any research on this, but I would venture to guess that if you were to pull 100 random matches that involved a saved penalty that you would find that the club that made the save would have done very well from that point on in the game. What does this have to do with replay you might ask? A tremendous amount actually.
The reason is because replay has the effective of magnifying small moments in the game into bigger moments, and big moments into game changing moments artificially. The reason is because the confidence boost of winning or losing the challenge almost always substantially raises or lowers the confidence of a given side much more than the outcome of a call on the field in real time would. What I mean by this is it creates an artificial winning moment in the if you win the challenge, even though you have done anything more on the playing pitch, it still ends up being a massive boost in confidence mentally because you feel like you have won some. If you win a challenge in a key moment early on, then it can even be game changing.
To see this, and wrap up this section I will return to our Dodgers and Braves series, where Atlanta entered game with the confidence of having won the previous game, and got off to a quick to run lead. In the 3rd inning they scored what looked to be a 3rd run, and a 3-0, but that call was reviewed, revealing that the runner left early, and the run was taken off the board. Now, in this instance replay got the call correct, which I am not disputing, but that I feel like this particular replay changed the outcome of the game by artificially affecting the confidence of both teams conversely. The result of the replay, or the result of the correct call being made in real time may seem the same on paper in that either way Atlanta has 2 runs and the inning is over. In my opinion, what is different is that in the replay scenario you go through the entire process of putting the run on the board, Atlanta having the high of celebrating the score, immediately to have their confidence dropped by the taking the run off the board. Meanwhile LA has the low of conceding the run, followed by the high of having the run taken off, and the feeling of "winning" the challenge. That was enough confidence for LA's first batter in the next inning to hit home run, and the confidence would only build from there in an ultimately 7-3 win. Now I know that is a lot about a baseball game in a soccer article, but it's a perfect illustration of my point, and you should be able to find a replay of this game pretty easily to see what I mean.
Thanks for hanging with me through all of that, I know it's a lot to consider, but to me it all adds up to VAR does more harm than good.
A Look At The Opposition: Reno 1868
I am obligated to talk about something you might be familiar with if you follow my Twitter account closely enough, and that is Langsdorf. Back in the spring I had made a prediction on the show that Langsdorf would be one of the key additions of the offseason in the USL. I simply looked at him as a guy who had been extremely successful in college, had put up good numbers for a bad Portland Timbers 2 team, and was now going to be pairing with Corey Hertzog who I considered to be one of the top forwards in the league. Well, sometimes you can be a little bit too on the mark with a prediction as Langsdorf's 10 goals in 11 games (including one against Phoenix last time out) have propelled Reno all the way to the number one overall seed. Not to mention, and we just talked about confidence, being a team that absolutely exudes confidence. Interim manager Blair Gavin confirmed to me this week that Langsdorf and Hertzog have found impressive chemistry on the pitch and will be formidable. Add in Christian Francois, and the Reno offense is truly terrifying. This is no to even mention Tucker Bone who in my opinion was Reno's best player in that last match in spite of having a name that sounds like it was generated by FIFA Career Mode.
This weeks odds come from draftkings.com, and well in short, bet the draw. Now keep in mind that these playoff games go into extra time, and then eventually the PKs, but only the first 90 minutes are actionable. In other words if it goes to extra time then the draw is what will pay out. It looks very much here like is is what is going to happen according to the casino. The +195 isn't just the lowest draw payout I have seen in a Phoenix match this season, but on of the lowest I have seen period. Essentially the casino thinks that these two clubs are as evenly matched as it gets. Phoenix is the slight favorite, even on the road, but they are what you would call a "public team" by USL standards, which basically means they get some money bet on them every week just based on their name, which inevitably skews the odds a little bit more towards then as the casino is looking to get action on all sides, especially in this game. If you are a fan of getting more than 90 minutes of soccer in one sitting they you are in luck tonight it seems, which is fun as a neutral, for me not so much, I will however have my lucky hat on early and often tonight.
Reno 1868 vs Phoenix Rising Prediction
In a match for the ages that will live on alongside the final game of the 2006 World Cup, things look bleak for Phoenix early as Langsdorf and Hertzog both register in the first half. Phoenix is on the ropes going into the break. However, they come out with a fire in their belly and Santi Moar scores in the 55th minute, followed by a quick brace by Solomon Asante (including one goal with his head and a bicycle kick). Phoenix looks to be cruising toward victory, but Francois lifts a cross into the box from 30 yards out, and Langsdorf heads home the equalizer. Both teams get their chances in overtime, but both goalies are rock solid through the 30 minutes. PKs are a bit of a seesaw battle that sees us to go 11 shooters. Eventual Man of the Match Zac Lubin makes 3 saves in the shootout, and as the 11th shooter fires home the 9th and winning goal for Phoenix.