PORTLAND — Minutes after the final whistle at Providence Park on Wednesday, some Phoenix Rising FC players were stretching in the locker room; others were running postgame drills on the Portland Timbers 2 pitch.
With a quick glance, things looked business as usual for the club.
But Wednesday night was anything but business as usual. With its 2-0 win over Timbers 2, Phoenix Rising clinched its first-ever USL playoff berth. It was the achievement head coach Patrice Carteron had been targeting since arriving in the Valley, the goal he wanted to pour his “heart and soul” into.
Yet, when his team confirmed a place in this fall’s postseason, Carteron was mild-mannered. He called it a “dream come true” but also said his squad lacked some intensity on Wednesday, despite extending its unbeaten streak to 11 and winning streak to five, both club records.
“We go out as a team, we fight as a team,” midfielder Shaun Wright-Phillips said. “If one man is out of position, someone fills in. No matter what happens we’ve got each other’s backs on and off the pitch. That’s rolling the confidence through the defenders and Josh (Cohen); the keepers that have been in goal have been fantastic on this run and it’s started to take the pressure off the attackers to not force anything.”
Wright-Phillips, who scored the playoff-clinching goal, will go down in the club record book but his post-match feelings remained on the win and less on his tap-in score.
“It’s relieving, but for me it didn’t matter who scored,” he said. “The goal went in and we got the three points. I’ll take the points, the win and the clean sheet; that was the most important thing.”
It could’ve been easy for the team to savor its club-record achievement. Playing in one of the country’s most historic soccer stadiums, Phoenix Rising made some headlining history of its own.
But based on its attitude postgame, there could be even more memorable moments to come. There was no champagne shower or overblown celebration in the locker room. Winning has become the expectation for the team now.
“We are just going to take every game, game by game, and keep trying to win every game,” forward Jason Johnson said. “Hopefully we will go into the playoffs in a strong position and keep playing the way we are playing.”
Johnson made some individual history against Timbers 2, scoring his 10th goal of the season in the second half to seal the victory and postseason bid. It made him just the second ever player in Rising FC history to have double-digit goals in a single season.
“It’s nice,” Johnson said. “I want more. And more. I feel happy about that, but I want more, anything to help the team.”
It echoes the sentiments of the entire team. They all want more.
“We just play every game to win,” Johnson said. “Whatever happens is what happens. We move on from that.”
Wednesday’s triumph and resulting playoff berth have solidified 2017 as the best season the franchise has ever had on the field. But with each passing goal, clean sheet and victory, simply making the playoffs is becoming less and less satisfying for Rising FC. Making a run in the postseason is starting to become the expectation.
“We stay concentrated; we stay humble also. We accept to work really hard on the field every game with a fantastic spirit,” Carteron said. “We also have talented players, so all those reasons are part of the success for Phoenix Rising right now. We want to keep on like this until the end.”
Depth Becoming Key
Phoenix Rising FC’s depth is one reason for players not to get too comfortable with wins. On Wednesday, Carteron made six changes to a side that won 4-0 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 just four days earlier. Even as the team continues to pile up points (49), spots on the field aren’t safe for anyone.
“The manager and the coaches have got fantastic balance, just keeping everybody happy and everybody is playing well which is great competition,” Wright-Phillips said. “Everybody has to raise their game. I think leading into the playoffs and the run we’ve just had away from home, that was the most important thing and you can see it in the team and it’s helped us progress.”
It is exactly how Carteron wanted this stretch run to play out.
“It’s the key to success. You must not only take care of 11 starting players, you must take care of the whole group,” Carteron said. “I told them a few weeks ago to believe in me and to believe I really will need most of them.”