Less than 24 hours after the United Soccer League affirmed and then reiterated the Phoenix Rising's claim to home-field advantage should it advance to the league's championship game, the franchise relinquished that right in recognition that it was tainted.
Having tied Louisville City FC in total points and victories thanks to a forfeit by San Diego Loyal, Phoenix Rising had earned hosting priority based on a third tiebreaker: goal differential. But because that forfeit was the result of San Diego's protest of an alleged homophobic slur by Phoenix forward Junior Flemmings, Rising management recognized what might have been a glaring optics issue.
As a result, the winner of Saturday's Eastern Conference final between Louisville City FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies will play host to the championship game on Nov. 1.
According to a USL press release issued Tuesday evening, the Rising's request "was made out of respect for the LGBTQ community" and in recognition that the circumstances surrounding the forfeit would have made hosting the final inappropriate "and inconsistent with club values."
Flemmings was suspended for the balance of the season after a league investigation confirmed he had directed a slur at the San Diego Loyal’s openly gay Collin Martin in a game on Sept. 30.
In walking off the field to protest Flemmings’ remark, the San Diego team forfeited a game it was leading by two goals at halftime. Thus, when Phoenix eliminated Reno 1868 FC from the USL playoffs last week, it gained the inside track for home-field advantage in next week's final, raising objections from LouCity coach John Hackworth, among others.
“I don’t know how the league can consider that a three-point Phoenix victory,” Hackworth said of San Diego’s forfeit. “That just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“For them (Phoenix) to gain an advantage — a really big advantage — for the biggest game of the year and the first time ever being on ESPN from that situation, if the tables were turned, I don’t think I would want to take that opportunity. I would want to make a decision that was right for all of us in that case.”
Hackworth is obviously and admittedly biased, but the USL's standard host agreement allows the league "sole discretion" in the selection of sites for its championship game and raised hopes that the league would decide against staging its title game in Phoenix.
“Ordinarily, the league will select the club with the most regular season points...” the agreement says. “However, the league is not required to select such club.”
Yet two USL spokesmen insisted that Phoenix would host the game Monday, and the league issued a release confirming its plans. Though Phoenix Rising executives did not respond to telephone and email messages from the Courier-Journal on Monday, they shared their reservations at a meeting with the league on Tuesday morning.
"The USL supports Rising FC’s decision, appreciates its commitment to the community and has approved its request for forfeiture of hosting rights," the league said. "... In the coming weeks, USL HQ will work with its clubs and the USLPA on ways to strengthen its policies around in-match verbal abuse ahead of the 2021 season, including reevaluating suspension length, the awarding of match outcomes and individual award eligibility for those found to have used foul and abusive language."
Flemmings, who led the USL with 14 goals, was suspended for the balance of the season, and his absence could compromise Phoenix in its Western Conference final against El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday. Yet the possibility of Phoenix playing host under these circumstances could have turned a harsh spotlight on the USL.
“I’m only thinking logical,” LouCity's Hackworth said. “There’s the story of the game. Then there’s story of our league. Then there’s the social unrest going on in the world. Specifically, the soccer world has taken a stand against racism, against any kind of homophobic language. It’s happening in leagues all over the world ...
“I just don’t think the story will be the teams and the final if it’s (in Phoenix).”
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: USL Championship: Phoenix Rising relinquishes claim to home-field edge