El Paso Locomotive travel to Casino Arizona Field in Tempe, Arizona to play Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday, October 24, 2020 in the USL Championship Western Conference Finals. Like last week, I will not spend much time on season records because tonight things are fairly simple. Win, and punch your ticket to the Final match. Lose, and your offseason starts at the final whistle. Both teams come in on what looks to be their strongest form of the season, although both have had a hard road in the playoffs thus far. It took extra time for Phoenix to beat Sacramento Republic 1-0 in the opening round, and until the 5th penalty kick for them to dispatch of Reno 1868 last week. El Paso meanwhile has seen both of their matches go all the way to the PK's, but have emerged victorious, first over Tulsa, and then last week against New Mexico United.
The other most notable stat going into the night is that El Paso is on a 13 match unbeaten run (10-3-0) overall, with ironically, their last loss coming at Phoenix back on August 1, 2020. The 3-1 loss to Phoenix had El Paso sitting on a 1-2-2 record through 5 matches, but to say they have turned things around since would be an understatement. Defense has been the name of the game, as they have allowed just 10 goals total during their 13 game unbeaten run.
🏆 on the line tonight!— x-Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) October 24, 2020
⏰ 7:30 p.m.
📻 ESPN 620AM
📺 @CW61Arizona // @abc15 app
MATCHDAY HQ: https://t.co/wZP0mq5dPx#RisingTogether | 2020 Playoffs presented by @AzCHealthPlan pic.twitter.com/XtO04ErsLX
The key acquisition for them seems to have been right back Macauley King, who came over from Indy Eleven in August. King has played in 12 matches for El Paso since August 15th, and they have not lost since acquiring him. In all, it will be a much different look for both sides than in their first meeting. El Paso had 5 players in their starting lineup against New Mexico last week who did not feature in the first match against Phoenix. On the Phoenix end of things, they will obviously be without the suspended Junior Flemmings, who scored in the first match, but it is also worth noting that Eric Dick started at goalkeeper in the first meeting due to a Zac Lubin illness. Dick was outstanding in stopping 6 of 7 shots in the match, but Lubin is the clear starter and will be in net tonight barring injury.
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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 7:30 PM Arizona time on Saturday, October 24, 2020.
Referee assignments have Elton Garcia as the referee, the assistants are Diego Blas and Walt Heatherly, with Matt Thompson as the 4th official. Neither team has any players on the league discipline report.
This will be the 4th meeting all-time between the Phoenix Rising FC and El Paso Locomotive FC. Phoenix has won all 3 of the previous match-ups, including both last season, 2-0 at Southwest University Park in El Paso on April 13, 2019 and by a 2-1 score in Phoenix on August 10, 2019.
The Lead Story
Without question the lead story this week is the return of PRFC coach Rick Schantz to the touchline this week. As everyone knows, Schantz had been on administrative leave since the Flemmings incident, but his reinstatement was announced at a press conference on Wednesday. I personally couldn't be happier to see coach back, and have little doubt that he has learned from this experience and will be a better person for having gone through what has been a difficult experience for him. For those of you who are unhappy to see him back, or think his punishment wasn't enough, you are certainly entitled to that opinion, but as I wrote in my article a few weeks back, my expectation of someone that has made a mistake it for them to take ownership of it, make a sincere apology, and work to be better. From what I have seen, coach Schantz is committed to doing all of those things.
"Well, words don't mean a whole lot," Schantz said. "But in order to earn trust back, it takes time, and it takes action, and that's something that I'm very aware of."@RickSchantz1 spoke today as he returns to his post as head coach #RisingTogether.https://t.co/LqGcLL6gt6— Owain Evans (@ojevans18) October 22, 2020
Furthermore, he has been given the blessing of the victim, Collin Martin, who in this case is the person's opinion that matters most. I do also want to mention that following my recent article coach Schantz reached out to me personally, which is something that means a tremendous amount, because it is something that he didn't have to do. As I wrote before, I believe that Rick Schantz is a good coach and genuinely good human being that was put in a bad situation, and reacted to it poorly. That doesn't mean he should be punished forever though. In my gambling section I often give ratings such as bet the farm or even bet 10 farms if I am particularly confident about a bet. Well I would bet 100 farms that coach Schantz has learned from and grown from this situation to not only never make that kind of mistake again, but to also to be a leader and educate others as well.
I am going to keep the player snapshots section short this week because this late into the season I have gone into length about just about everyone at some point, but I will take a short look at the newest player on the squad, Damion Lowe. He came in with just about 5 matches left in the regular season, but had not played for some time, and thus was not quite match fit. Then, just as he was getting to the point of playing a full 90 minutes he picked up an injury in the match against San Diego. Since then he has been mostly available on match days, but has not started, and has mostly seen time as a late sub. Last week, he saw his most action since the injury, coming on in the 67th minute, and staying on all the way through extra time.
Hopefully, this week will hopefully be the week that he returns to the starting lineup because when he has been out there he has shown to be possibly our best player at the center back position. This isn't to take anything away from A.J. Cochran and Joey Farrell, both quality players who have been excellent throughout their PRFC careers. However, Lowe is simply bigger, stronger, and faster that either or them, and that is a tough combination to beat. Furthermore, he is the most vocal player of any of our back line players. Usually, it is Lubin who is the one shouting out directions on the defensive end, but when Lowe comes in he gives a second loud voice back there. Also, when Lowe comes on to the pitch the offense becomes move dynamic because the midfielders, and even full backs are free to take more risks, with Lowe having the pace recover quickly and cover an open area of the pitch if one of them is caught forward after a turnover. This was seen against Reno, as Solomon Asante's match leveling goal came just 4 minutes after Lowe came onto the pitch. The real impact comes on the defensive end though. With the exception of 2 goals that Phoenix allowed in the San Diego match before Lowe's injury (a match where they were playing mostly backups), Phoenix has not conceded any goals while he has been on the pitch.
Before I finish up with the player snap shots, we do have to talk a bit about last week's Man of the Match, Lubin, as was correctly predicted in this article. I am not usually one to go back and write about last week's prediction, but this time I kind of have to. As I have said many times before the gambling section of my articles is serious analysis. If I say to bet on something, and I say you can confidently bet on it, it means get your money out. And, if you were to go back and look through all the articles I have ever written, and look at the times I have specifically said, get your money out and bet the farm today, those have been usually accurate. My score prediction at the end of the article, and the little blurb about how it's going to get there, it's purely for entertainment purposes.
To give an idea of how I come up with my final prediction is that I think of all the different ways I think the match could go, pull the arm and an imaginary slot machine in my head, and however it comes up is what I write. Two weeks ago the imaginary slot machine came up with a 1-0 PRFC win, which was dead on the nose, but nothing too entertaining about that prediction. Last week, however, let's just say that with my prediction I took "for entertainment purposes" to the extreme. I did think it was going to be a wild game, which it ended up being, but my wild prediction ended up being close enough to what actually happened to prompt the Twitter exchange you see embedded below. For those who didn't read the article, I predicted a match that would end 3-3 and that Phoenix would win in penalties, but that it would take 11 kickers to decide it. First, things I got wrong; the score ended 2-2 and not 3-3, it took 5 not 11 penalty kickers, Foster Langsdorf did not score, and most disappointingly, there was no bicycle kick goal by Asante.
However, the list of things I managed to actually get right in basically trying to make the wildest prediction possible included; Phoenix falling behind 2 early and coming back, goals by Asante and Corey Hertzog, the game being decided in PK's, and Lubin being named Man of the Match in spite of conceding multiple goals. Of all the predictions I got right, the Lubin one is perhaps most improbable in that over the course of the night he went from the guy that everyone was mad at, to MOTM. It was a performance that may have stolen him away the nickname "Mr. Excitement" from former Accrington keeper Dimitar Evtimov. While one of the goals that Phoenix conceded came off of a Lubin turnover, he ultimately saved 8 of the 10 shots that he faced before the shootout. Some of those saves were spectacular, a couple were spectacularly self inflicted, but that was the kind of night it was. That being said, when he turned away Aidan Apodaca's penalty shot to secure the victory, there was no doubt in my mind who should be MOTM. I talked a lot in my listener questions podcast about getting punched in the mouth and getting back up and punching harder. Nobody showed that more than Lubin did last Saturday.
A Look At The Opposition: El Paso Locomotive
The biggest story for El Paso, as I mentioned above, is the new players they have added since early August. I already talked about King, but according to coach Schantz, Leandro Carrijo, who scored both goals against FC Tulsa in the opening round has been a big addition for them. Schantz also told me that he expects for El Paso to play a 4-3-3 against Phoenix. He also said that he feels a key matchup for Phoenix to win tonight is the one between Rufat Dadashov and El Paso center back Yuma. With a 5 inch height advantage, the 6 foot 2 inch Dadashov should have the advantage in the air over the 5 foot 9 inch Yuma, when crosses come into the box. The other center back Jerome Mechack is another crafty veteran, who leads El Paso in minutes played this year, and of particular concern is that he also leads the team with 22 interceptions. Most of the goals Phoenix has conceded this year have come because of turnovers, so they will need to be particularly careful with the ball around Mechack. With a 35-year-old Yuma, and Mechack at 30-years-old, El Paso has a wealth of experience at the center back position, but what they have in experience, they lack in height, as Mechack is listed at just 5 feet 10 inches. This will present a challenge for El Paso not only in defending Dadashov, but also makes the athletic, 6 foot 3 inch Lowe a particular threat on set pieces. It is going to be important Phoenix to really pick their spots and get good opportunities, as nothing less than a perfect shot is going to back past Locomotive star goalkeeper Logan Ketterer.
This season Ketterer has a nearly 80% save percentage, has allowed just .87 goals per 90 minute, and lead the league in clean sheets with 8. Josue Gomez Gomez (5 goals) and Dylan Mares (4 goals) lead El Paso in scoring this year. Mares was also mentioned to me by coach Schantz as being a key to their midfield.
Phoenix Rising vs El Paso Gambling Analysis
This week the fine folks at draftkings.com seem to think that they have a pretty good handle on who is going to win tonight, and it is good news for PRFC fans. There is a couple of things this line tells me. The most obvious is that at more than 3 to 1 odds, the casino is absolutely begging you to bet on El Paso, and you know by know that anytime the casino is begging you to do something, you want to do exactly the opposite. Anytime you have a conference finals game like this, you are at a point in the season where both teams are going to inevitably be good, so in any sport it is rare to see a 3 to 1+ underdog at this round of the playoffs at all. The even more interesting thing about this line though is that for those of you that have been asking for a non-nail-biter, it seems that the oddsmakers think this one will be decided in the 90 minutes. As we often talk about anytime the draw line is at about +250 or lower, that means the casino is guarding against paying out on the draw. At +285, this line is almost encouraging you to bet on the draw, and as we mentioned above, anytime the casino is encouraging you to do something, stay away from it. In other words, if you are the type of person that is into betting on low risk, low reward bets, then put your quid on a PRFC win.
Phoenix Rising vs El Paso Locomotive Prediction
This morning I spoke with Jake Anderson, and he said he was predicting a 2-0 PRFC victory tonight. I told him that I hadn't made my prediction yet, but that he didn't sound too far off. I still don't think he sounds too far off, but in respect of him having predicted it first, I will say the emotional boost Phoenix gets from coach Schantz returning to the sidelines is worth an extra goal tonight. The run of not allowing goals with Lowe on the pitch continues, as he gets the start, and Lubin only needs to make 3 saves to keep a clean sheet this time. Moar gets Phoenix on the board early in the match, then Dadashov draws a penalty late in the first half, and Asante cashes it in. Lowe heads in a corner kick in the 77th minute to put things to bed.