Reno 1868 FC's Western Conference semifinal with Phoenix Rising on Saturday is going to feel like the league's championship game.
Because you could make a convincing argument these are the two best teams in the league in 2020. Reno and Phoenix ranked first and second in the USL in points and goal differential, with Reno getting the edge in the first category and Phoenix the second one.
"This is a really confident group,” head coach Ian Russell said of his team in advance of the 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday, which will air on Nevada Sports Net. “I think the results we’ve been getting have instilled a lot of confidence. Last game we were on the front foot right away. I think that set the tone.”
Reno is coming off a 4-1 Western Conference quarterfinal win over LA Galaxy II. Phoenix had a more difficult time in its postseason opener, beating a stout Sac Republic FC team 1-0 thanks to an illegal hand goal by Rising's Solomon Asante in the 114th minute.
Phoenix has had the USL's most potent offense, scoring a league-best 46 goals in the regular season. But Reno has the home-field advantage (with 700 fans this time around) and won the only regular-season matchup between the teams, a 2-1 win in Reno in August. Phoenix will be without the USL's leading scorer, Junior Flemmings, who is suspended after his homophobic slur against a San Diego Loyal player last month. Rising coach Rick Schantz also is an administrative leave.
Reno enters the Western Conference semifinal on an 11-game unbeaten streak, ending the regular season on a tear to secure the top overall seed in the playoffs. A win would put Reno in the conference finals for the first time in its four-year history. The winner advances to play either El Paso or New Mexico in that match.
"Whenever you play Phoenix it's going to be a tough game," Reno's Corey Hertzog said. "Last year, they went on that 20-game (winning streak). They have all the respect from the league and stuff like that. I think this is another statement win. If we win this one, people will start believing, "Reno is up for it, and they can actually make a run at this.' I think this game is one of the biggest in Reno's four-year tenure here with Phoenix this Saturday. It kind of puts that statement win, and then we'll be in the Western Conference final."