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Playoff Preview: Swope Park Rangers v Phoenix Rising

A match-up so good, it should have been in the Western Conference Finals instead of the first round.

Thad Bell

When: Saturday, October 21st at 7:30 PM CT

Where: Children’s Mercy Victory Field at Swope Soccer Village

Who: Swope Park Rangers (#4) vs. Phoenix Rising FC (#5)

With the MLS Cup Playoffs still a week away, there is a really important game for Kansas City soccer that isn’t happening on Decision Day. The Swope Park Rangers will take on possibly the league’s hottest team in Phoenix Rising FC.

Both of these clubs come into the USL Cup Playoffs with identical 17-8-7 records but they got there in very different ways. Phoenix started out 2-2-0 in their first seven games then their head coach, former MLS Cup winner Frank Yallop, abruptly quit. It’s not often losing your head coach works out that well. They went 1-2-0 (for a cumulative 3-4-0) before hiring Patrice Carteron. Carteron then went 14-4-7 for the rest of the year. Not bad for a midseason replacement.

Swope Park didn’t lose their coach during the season, instead Marc Dos Santos left in the offseason to be replaced by Nikola Popovic. That’s after Dos Santos took the expansion club to the USL Cup Finals last season.

SPR hit the ground running going 3-0-0 before suffering their first loss. They’ve been pretty steady before slumping right before the end of the season. The Rangers finished 2-1-1 in their last four where they were ironically a victim of their own success. Four Swope Park players were signed from SPR to Sporting Kansas City since the start of the year (Amer Didic, James Musa, Kevin Oliveira and Kharlton Belmar). They also had Tyler Pasher and Adrian Zendejas signed away before the season started.

While most of the Swope Park players haven’t put in a lot of time with the first team in terms of minutes, they have been sitting on the bench with SKC which takes them away from contributing to SPR. Only Tyler Pasher and James Musa have even started for the first team. Didic and Zendejas have yet to even appear. Combined, all six players have just 152 minutes with Sporting KC. It’s the minutes they aren’t getting, but being put in the 18 unused, that could impact SPR on Saturday.

The key for Swope Park could come down to who Peter Vermes takes with him to Salk Lake City when Sporting take on Real Salt Lake on Sunday. Vermes hasn’t shown a desire to use his subs but unless Tim Melia is healthy, Adrian Zendejas probably has to go at a minimum.

The Other Team

Full disclosure, I’m a season ticket holder for Phoenix Rising FC. I sit in the Supporter’s Section (when I’m not in the press box) and have rooted hard for them all year, minus those two game against SPR when I was very torn. But I am a Missourian first.

Phoenix comes into Saturday’s playoff game making their first playoff appearance in the five year history of the club (one as the Phoenix FC Wolves and three as Arizona United). They are 1-0-1 against Swope this season and are potentially the hottest team in the league.

The biggest story is of course Didier Drogba becoming a part owner of the club and of course a player. He has nine goals in just 13 appearances but is supported by a cast of goal scorers. Jason Johnson leads the team with 13 goals and forward Chris Cortez has five along with winger Alessandro Riggi’s four.

Perhaps the biggest addition to PRFC this year is former Sporting KC first round pick Amadou Dia. He debuted in Drogba’s first game and arguably stole the show with his stout defense and surprising offense. He’s tallied two goals and three assists and somehow moved from fullback to winger late in the season.

In net Josh Cohen has replaced Carl Woszczynski as the lead goalkeeper. Cohen has actually played quite well despite the fact that Phoenix didn’t record their first clean sheet until June 30th against Reno 1868 FC (who have scored more than any other team this year). They have gone on to record eight more shutouts after that. Cohen may be best remembered as the Orange County Blues keeper who allowed a goal to a 9-man Rangers squad in last year’s USL Western Conference Semi-Finals.



Swope Park: Kharlton Belmar (14), Nansel Selbol (9), Lebo Moloto (7), Mark Anthony Gonzalez (5), Kevin Oliveira (3)

Phoenix: Jason Johnson (13), Didier Drogba (9), Chris Cortez (5), Alessandro Riggi (4), Shaun Wright Phillips (3)


Swope Park: Christian Duke (7), Kevin Oliveira (5), Lebo Moloto (4), Felipe Hernandez, Pasher, Colton Storm (3)

Phoenix: Chris Cortez (5), Kody Wakasa (4), Drogba, Riggi, Wright-Phillips, Dia, Johnson (3)

Goals Conceded

Swope Park: 37

Phoenix: 37

Last Five

Swope Park: W/W/D/L/W (10 Points)

Phoenix: W/L/W/W/W (12 Points)

Starting XI

For Swope, as stated, it depends who PV takes with him to SLC. Possibly the biggest issue is if Melia can’t at least be the backup, Zendejas has to go ride the bench. That would leave Darren MacLeod as the likely starter.

There is a good chance either Erik Palmer-Brown or Amer Didic goes with SPR as Matt Besler and Ike Opara are good to go for SKC. My money is on Didic.

The other questions are the newest SPR to SKC signings, Belmar and Oliveira. Belmar was just four goals shy of a Golden Boot in USL, he has to go especially since he has just six minutes with the senior team. Vermes doesn’t use his subs, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say he sends them both since Medranda can be the bench guy for SKC.

Rangers Predicition: 4-3-3, MacLeod, Storm, Didic, Ballo, Pasher, Musa, Duke, Oliveira, Belmar, Moloto, Selbol

I really like Selbol off the bench but MAG has been mysteriously absent as of late. Maybe Max Rugova, who is just 17-years-old starts, so Selbol can come on and kill with pace late.

As for Phoenix, they should have their full compliment available. They really have an embarrassment of riches in talent. I’d really like to see Dia return to fullback as he’s been great there, but they keep using him as a winger. No matter their lineup, they’ll have good depth off the bench to make an impact.

Phoenix Predicition: 4-2-3-1, Cohen, Wakasa, Ramage, Stewart, Dia, Lambert, Watson, Riggi, Awako, Johnson, Drogba


For me, it really comes down to who Swope Park brings along for the game. If they are without Belmar, Didic, Musa, Zendejas, Oliveira, etc., they could struggle to score goals and defend. The biggest problem could be not having Zendejas in net. With so much attacking prowess from Phoenix, saves will need to be made. Amer Didic could do a lot to shield the keeper as he’s partnered well with Oumar Ballo over the last two seasons. If James Musa is with SPR, that also helps stop balls from even getting near the keeper.

The problem with SPR’s style is their fullbacks are very offensive and can get caught up the field in the attack and are prone to get countered. If Phoenix play Riggi and Johnson on the wings they have speed for days to really make Swope pay.

On the other hand, SPR are great at home. They are 11-2-3 and were a perfect 3-0 in last post season at home. Also, Phoenix aren’t great on the road, going 6-5-5, but they are 3-1-0 in their last four road games.

Carteron has talked about how he’s resting key players over the last few weeks, so PRFC should be fresh.

As a club, I think Swope Park does it best. They have guys playing in the same system from the SKC Academy, through Swope Park all the way to the first team. It’s possible Phoenix just has more talent right now. The real difference probably comes down to an inexperienced goalkeeper playing against a quick countering team that actually has some world class talent (albeit old talent) available. I expect an exciting game, more like the first meeting (a 4-3 PRFC win) than the second meeting (a 2-2 draw). With a combined 11 goals in two games, more should reign in.

Winner: Phoenix Rising, 3-2 over SPR

Don’t tell anyone in Phoenix, but I’ll be rooting for Swope Park.