By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 3, 2021) US Soccer Players – There might be nothing more sacred in the play habits of kids than the do-over. Every mistake, screw-up, or failure could be wiped away with a simple call for a do-over. Any pickup game that hinged on a swing, a shot, or a kick was a potential venue for the versatile mechanism that allowed for changing history. Whatever it was that the do-over replaced never happened. All parties involved tacitly agreed to that fact when someone said that magic phrase.
Not all do-overs were automatic, though. Sometimes forces (i.e., the other kids) allayed against the would-be do-over taker and struck down the do-over. Call for a do-over, and you’d sometimes get that most distressing of responses: “NUH-UH”.
Phoenix Rising and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are looking for a do-over. Since the two clubs exist in the world of adults and adults in a professional sports league, there is no calling for the do-over. No one would agree to grant it. So Phoenix and Tampa have to make it happen.
The two USL Championship clubs will enter the playoff season as favorites to do what they could not do because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: Faceoff for a championship.
Following the Championship’s geographically-focused pod-based return to play last year, Rising and the Rowdies rode into the postseason with high expectations. Each finished near the top of their respective conference standings and won their groups to qualify for the playoffs. Across the league, fans and coaches alike knew that on pure talent, Phoenix and Tampa both had the goods to win a championship.
Still, the margins are small, and the challenge in a knockout tournament is significant. Phoenix needs a goal in extra time to take down Sacramento in the first round out West, then Reno (the top seed in the West), and El Paso via penalty kicks to win the conference.
Tampa’s run proved to be easier but only relatively speaking. The Rowdies handled Birmingham Legion 4-2 in the first round, then executed one-goal wins over Charleston and Louisville City to become champions of the East.
Two clubs with long-held championship aspirations but with zero combined USL title trophies prepared to meet on November 1. Then the pandemic ruined everything.
An outbreak of positive tests for the COVID-19 virus forced the USL to cancel the highly anticipated matchup. There would be no title game. To say it was all a bit anticlimactic would be an understatement. Amid the public health crisis, the canceling of a soccer match is hardly a tragedy, but it did leave everyone with a distinct sense that there would always be unfinished business.
Unless, of course, Phoenix and Tampa can execute a do-over.
The two teams arrive at the playoff stage of the 2021 season at the top of the table. Tampa won the USL Championship points title, edging Phoenix by four points. That honor is a worthwhile one, mostly because it conveys to the Rowdies home-field advantage throughout the postseason. It’s impossible to know which is the better team based on regular-season results because of an unbalanced schedule. The best we can say is that Tampa handled the Eastern Conference while Phoenix was the best team in the Western Conference.
Back in May, the Rowdies beat Phoenix 2-1 at Al Lang Stadium. That game probably doesn’t inform a potential USL Championship final clash all that much. Still, when it comes to the psychological edge, the Rowdies hold a slim advantage. There’s plenty of work to do for both teams to get their championship match do-over. Tampa hosting Phoenix with everything on the line is far from a foregone conclusion.
Phoenix’s journey begins on Saturday, hosting Rio Grande Valley at Wild Horse Pass. At one point early in the regular season, Rio Grande Valley was the pacesetter in the Western Conference’s Mountain Division under former Houston Dynamo head coach Wilmer Cabrera. After drifting back to the pack, RGV needed a late push to stave off New Mexico United for the division’s final playoff spot. They won’t be pushovers, but Phoenix will be strong favorites.
The only problem for Rising is a decided lack of good form going into the postseason. Playing at home is huge for the club, undefeated there in 2021, but recent results opened up cracks in confidence. Two of the club’s five draws at Wild Horse Pass came in the final two games of the season. Outside of a 6-goal thumping of last-place Las Vegas on October 16, goals have largely dried up for Rising.
If Phoenix gets past Rio Grande Valley, it will face the winner of a conference quarterfinal between San Antonio FC and San Diego Loyal. The odds say that a conference final berth would mean a match against El Paso Locomotive.Assuming that happens, home-field advantage for Arizona will again be massive. If there’s a team in the West that has the chops to play with Phoenix on the Rising’s patch in front of what would undoubtedly be a soldout stadium holding 10,000, it’s El Paso.
Although the Rowdies won the points title and have the stingiest defense in the league, they might have the tougher path to the do-over. Tampa Bay conceded only 23 goals in 32 games. Following a first-round tilt against FC Tulsa, the Rowdies would get the winner of Birmingham Legion and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Bob Lilley’s Pittsburgh team plays Tampa notorious tough. They’re one of three teams along with Charlotte and Miami FC with multiple wins against Tampa in 2021.
Then there’s Louisville City, the Central Division winner and a potential Eastern Conference final opponent for Tampa. No team in the USL’s recent history has been better in the playoffs than Louisville. The club won back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018 and lost in the 2019 final to Real Monarchs. Even with a young first-year coach in Danny Cruz, Louisville won’t just make way for the Rowdies.
The obstacles are significant. There are plenty of kids on the playground yelling “NUH UH” at the idea of a do-over. But if Phoenix Rising and the Tampa Bay Rowdies want to resolve their unfinished business from 2020, there’s only one way to make it happen. Reach the final and earn the do-over.
More From Jason Davis:
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- After a painful loss, questions get louder for DC United
- Will Saturday help us figure out the Western Conference?
- NYCFC looks for a home advantage
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