Hot! Phoenix FC gets first win in club history

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By Jon Arnold

Tempe – Phoenix FC got its inaugural victory in club history with a 1-0 win against fellow USL PRO expansion team VSI Tampa Bay on Saturday.

The opening moments of the match were quiet, save for an impressive showing from supporters group La Furia Roja behind the south goal. The team gave them – and the rest of the crowd, announced to be a sell out of 4,198 – reason to cheer in the 15th minute when Diego Faria laid the ball off to Netinho outside the 18-yard box. The midfielder hit a right-footed shot in the upper right corner of the net for the club’s first goal.

“It’s just a fantastic goal and to win the game on a spectacular goal like that, it’s perfect,” said David Robertson, Phoenix’s head coach, after the match. Robertson said he and the coaching staff were yelling for Netinho to square the ball but were pleasantly surprised by the result. The player, however, wasn’t surprised at all. “When I hit it I felt a lot of confidence in it,” he said through a translator after the match. “My next thought was to go run to the fans.”

Phoenix nearly put another past five minutes later when a VSI Tampa Bay opportunity turned into a Wolves counter-attack. Donny Toia came down the left side and had his shot parried wide by Alex Horwath.

Defender Scott Morrison filled in at defensive midfielder for Anthony Obodai, who was suspended after being sent off in the club’s season-opening loss to the LA Blues last weekend. Like when playing fullback, Morrison was involved getting forward, putting in multiple balls over the top that troubled the Flames’ back line. One came in the 24th minute when he crossed across the box to Aaron King. The former FC Tampa Bay forward headed the ball to the ground but Horwarth parried his effort over the bar.

Travis Bowen, a 23-year-old easily recognizable by his brightly dyed hair, also had success down the flanks, using his quickness to elude the Tampa left back on several occasions. It was enough for one fan to loudly declare him his “favorite Phoenix FC” player just minutes into the first home match.

“We were able to show our qualities a little bit more as a team,” as compared to last week after going down a man, Bowen said after the match. “I just said I’m going to trust my abilities and go with what feels right. I thought I was playing lose and it helps when 4,000 are screaming for you and you get that little extra burst of energy.”

Though Bowen’s play overall was strong, he failed to convert a great scoring opportunity in the 32nd minute when Morrison beat a pair of defenders and somehow efforted a cross to Bowen that he was unable to control.

It wasn’t all one way traffic in the first half – VSI Tampa Bay had four shots on goal in the first half, but they were all saved by Andrew Weber. Their best chance came in the 29th minute when Shawn Chin slipped through Devon Grousis and Cyprian Hedrick and put in a shot on Weber who dove to the ground and stopped the shot. Minutes later Grousis sacrificed his body in the box and blocked a Andriy Budnyy effort inside the box.

The second half started with more excitement than the first, with the match’s first yellow card being issued in the 46th minute. Faria had broken away on the left and was the victim of a harsh tackle from Kyle Hoffer.

Phoenix FC continued to seek an insurance goal and it nearly came in the 49th. Morrison hit a lovely cross to King whose header smashed against the post. It fell to Faria, but the assistant referee raised his flag for offside.

Weber continued his excellence, tipping a fantastic Flames’ shot over the bar when it appeared destined for the upper 90 and collecting the ensuing corner in the 56th minute.

“Andrew, I’ve said six weeks ago he’s the best goalkeeper in this league,” Robertson said. “At times he’s going to help us out, hopefully he doesn’t help us out too much, but tonight he had a couple of fantastic saves particularly the one in the second half when my heart was in my mouth when the guy struck. I was right behind it. It was just fantastic he got there,” he continued in reference to that stop.

The Wolves started applying more midfield pressure after Tampa was again able to get in a cross only moments later. It worked, with the match slowing down and Phoenix largely holding possession and limited Tampa Bay’s chances. Aside from the midfield pressure, Hedrick showed some of the skills that got him drafted by Sporting Kansas City, charging back from a poor free kick to stop a potential counter from Tampa, sliding to block a cross in the 73rd minute, and making a tough tackle in the center of the park just after. In the 75th he ran all the way over to the left side and capped an excellent stretch of play with an expertly timed tackle, winning the ball from substitute Karamba Janneh. That stretch simply highlighted the strong play from the center back, which earned him the press’ Man of the Match award.

Another sliding effort rescued Phoenix in the 77th minute when Grousis made a tackle in the box that would’ve been a certain penalty had it been a moment sooner or later.

Robertson used all three of his substitutes from the 80th minute on as the Wolves looked to kill off the match. The visitors had a corner kick in the 93rd minute that brought Horwath up from his box. It was cleared and Phoenix nearly had the second goal it’d been chasing. The play broke down, but it didn’t end up being a factor. Morrison helped slow the game down with a ‘professional’ yellow card and the referee blew the final whistle shortly after.

The team will enjoy the victory, Robertson said, but soon must set its sights toward the future.

“We just need to keep this up,” he said. “It’s been an exciting two weeks. First away game, first home game.

“Orlando comes next week, which that is the real test. That’s the yard stick. That’s the top team in the league. I think they’ve been playing for three months. I think if we can go and compete then put the effort on and if we get the same support next week then I think we’re on to a good thing.”

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