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In some ways, a large part of Phoenix Rising’s history was shaped by a 2013 Open Cup match before the team was born.
“I had just called my father after I’d come out of the locker room,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “The stadium was completely empty. The lights were still on, and I was kind of standing on the field on the phone with my dad, telling him what had happened and how excited I was.
“At that point, there was a glimmer that I might want to be a professional coach. I loved coaching, and I loved working with kids. I liked working with FC Tucson, but I felt like there might be a shot that I can really go after. It was probably the U.S. Open Cup that gave me a little bit of another goal, another thing to chase in a career.”
Schantz was then the head coach of FC Tucson, an amateur team offering summer play to college students. His side had just knocked off San Antonio Scorpions, a professional team playing in the NASL. That result pushed his club into the Cup’s final 32 teams.
Now Schantz is set for his first return to that stage since that seminal moment. With Phoenix Rising, he is set to take on fellow USL Championship side Sacramento Republic in the Open Cup’s fourth round. In doing so, he could write more history.
Since the modern era of the Open Cup began in 1995, Arizona squads have been five wins away from lifting the cup on five different occasions. Three times, the amateur Arizona Sahuaros fell by multiple goals at that stage. In 2013, Schantz’s Tucson side lost to Houston Dynamo, 2-0. The following year, Arizona United, Rising’s predecessor, gave up a 1-0 lead to drop its fourth-round match, 2-1, at home to LA Galaxy.
Not only would a win Wednesday represent a Rising club record in the Open Cup, it would be the closest an Arizona team has come to the trophy since professional teams re-entered the competition.
In a busy period of games, however, it’s hard for Phoenix to focus solely on its Cup hopes. Rising is dealing with day-to-day issues after five players were ruled out due to injury, with yet more described as “questionable.”
“You have to rotate and of course, obviously with the injuries, it requires rotation,” Schantz said. “But it’s been good for us, I think, in general. It’s kind of forced everyone to step up and be held accountable. It’s also made all the other guys realize how important it is for Jonathan Levin to be focused and positive, and for Carlos Anguiano to be switched on and ready at any moment. You never know who’s going to play or be needed. We’re kind of going through it at a really difficult time right now. We have a lot of games.”
Rising’s matchup at Sacramento falls between two home league matches. Last Saturday, Phoenix defeated San Antonio 3-0, and it will face Tampa Bay on ESPN2 on Sunday.
“It’s tough to say if we prioritize [the Cup] or not,” Schantz said. “We want to win the next game we’re playing. No one goes into a game saying we don’t want to win. It’s just understanding that we haven’t even played a third of our season yet.”
Sacramento also comes into the match after a period of fixture congestion. Republic faced New Mexico last Wednesday, before travelling to New Jersey to face Red Bulls II on Sunday.
Still, with this Open Cup match coming at the end of that spell, Republic may not feel a need to manage minutes too carefully against Rising.
“They don’t play until next Wednesday so they can really go after it,” Schantz said. “They don’t have to save anybody for this game, so they can really push it and I expect them to do so.”
Unique among sporting competitions in the U.S., Open Cup matchups are determined by random draws within geographic restrictions. After the shuffling of a few envelopes, Rising was paired with Sacramento. That dashed the side’s hope of hosting an MLS team this week.
“I wish we could play an MLS team here at home, but I think playing Sacramento is better for us to have more [of a] chance to keep going,” Rising midfielder Arturo Rodriguez said.
For teams below the top tier, facing one of the country’s elite is the main allure of the competition.
“For USL teams and fans, there’s always a dream of playing against a Major League Soccer team,” Schantz said. “It’s getting the opportunity to hopefully host in a meaningful match an MLS team, and in the last round, a couple of those games happened.
“I think the reality is, for a USL team to win the U.S. Open Cup, you’d have to win four more games against MLS teams that have budgets of roughly $30 million to $40 million, compared to our $800,000 to a milion.
“It’s a Herculean effort. We have seen in the past some USL teams that have gone on and won a few games and have had to travel a lot; have really felt the pain in the league and it’s hurt them in the long run. We don’t have 30-man rosters, we only have 20 to 24 guys. When you start going from 34 games to 38 or even 40, it becomes very, very difficult.”
Even if lifting the trophy feels out of reach, there is still a chance to set club history tonight. But that’s not necessarily something that the team is thinking about.
“I think most of them don’t even know that, and two, it’s just not on their minds,” Schantz said. “Right now, it’s, ‘How do we stop Sacramento from scoring,’ and ‘How do we score against them? What are the things that we need to do as a team to win this game?’ That’s really all that those guys are thinking about.
“After we win, that’ll be a great thing to tell them.”