Preview: SPR set for playoff rematch with Didier Drogba and Phoenix Rising FC on Friday

After producing the biggest upset of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 win at Sacramento Republic FC, the Swope Park Rangers (16-11-8) have advanced to take on No. 3 seed Phoenix Rising FC (20-9-6) at 9:30 p.m. CT on Friday in the USL Western Conference Semifinals.

SPR, the seventh seed in the West, secured the club’s first away playoff win in comeback fashion last Saturday as Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal and Hadji Barry scored four minutes apart to dispatch second-seeded Sacramento for a second straight postseason.

The Rangers’ rally to keep the team’s defense of back-to-back Conference Championships alive, coupled with Phoenix’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Portland Timbers 2, now sets up another playoff rematch as SPR returns to the road in pursuit of a third straight appearance in USL Cup.

A year ago this week, the Rangers and Rising FC met in a Western Conference Quarterfinal clash played over two days due to inclement weather. SPR ultimately prevailed in a penalty shootout after Didier Drogba and Amer Didic each scored in extra time.

Didic, the only player to appear in all nine SPR playoff matches over the last three seasons, and Drogba, captain and co-owner of Phoenix Rising FC at age 40, are poised to square off again with a place in the Western Conference Championship on the line.

Drogba, who scored the game winner for Phoenix a week ago with a 35-yard free kick, now has 15 goals and four assists in 23 USL appearances since the start of 2017. The three-time World Cup veteran scored three times against SPR last season, but did not feature in either meeting between Phoenix and SPR this season.

The Rangers, unbeaten in the team’s last four match-ups with Rising FC, secured a 2-2 draw in Phoenix on April 21 thanks to two goals from Kharlton Belmar then claimed a 1-0 home win on May 26 with Hadji Barry scoring the game’s lone goal. Barry leads all USL players with eight game-winning goals in 2018 and is arguably the most in-form player in the league with goals in 10 of the Rangers’ last 11 matches.

While Barry and Belmar have combined for 28 goals this year as one of the best attacking duos in the USL, Phoenix Rising FC boasts an even more productive pair of goal scorers in Chris Cortez (17 goals) and Solomon Asante (14 goals). Asante has also contributed a team-best eight assists in 2018 and ranks third in the USL with 100 chances created.

Defensively, Phoenix Rising FC leads the league with 17 clean sheets and features four former SPR players in outside backs Amadou Dia and Saad Abdul-Salaam, holding midfielder James Musa and backup goalkeeper Zac Lubin. Musa, who is questionable for Friday’s match due to injury, was the Rangers team MVP last season, while Abdul-Salaam was Sporting KC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

All told, Rising FC returns 10 of the 14 players that took the field in last year’s playoff encounter. However, head coach Patrice Carteron left the club in June and Rick Schantz has since served as an interim head coach, a role he also held for seven games in 2017, to lead a squad that has 13 players with MLS experience, including five who arrived on loan from MLS clubs this year.

Friday’s fixture, the first of four Conference Semifinals in the USL Cup Playoffs, will be streamed live on ESPN+ inside No Other Pub in the Kansas City Power and Light District for fans 21 and over. The winner between Phoenix Rising FC and SPR will book a berth in the Western Conference Championship and will await the outcome of Saturday’s showdown between No. 1 seed Orange County SC and No. 5 seed Reno 1868 FC.

The 2018 USL Cup Playoffs feature the top eight teams from each conference competing in a single-elimination knockout format. All postseason games are held at the higher seed and the bracket culminates with the 2018 USL Cup on Thursday, Nov. 8 live on ESPN2.

USL Cup Playoffs – Western Conference Semifinals
Date: Friday, October 26, 2018
Kickoff: 9:30 p.m. CT
Location: Phoenix Rising FC Soccer Complex (Phoenix, Ariz.)

Swope Park Rangers: 16-11-8 (7th seed in Western Conference)
MLS Affiliate: Sporting Kansas City

Phoenix Rising FC: (20-9-6, 3rd seed in Western Conference)

MLS Affiliate: N/A

Game Notes: Click here
Match Center:Click here

Live Stream: ESPN+ (US) | YouTube (International)
Talent: Devon Kerr and Tyler Terens

Hashtag: #PHXvSPR

Swope Park Rangers
Twitter: @SwopeRangers
Instagram: @SwopeParkRangers

Phoenix Rising FC
Twitter: @PHXRisingFC
Instagram: @PHXRisingFC