In an evening that had more cliffhangers than a James Bond movie, it was Fresno FC goalkeeper CJ Cochran, first-year forward Jaime Chávez and second-half substitute Qudus Lawal who satiated a frenzied Chukchansi Park crowd Saturday night.
Cochran, for the first time in his professional career, batted away two penalty kicks.
Chávez calmly converted his penalty kick chance that proved to be the game-winner.
And, Lawal staked the Foxes to an early lead in the 69th minute by deftly losing his defender and blasting a left-footed shot shortly after coming into the match between the USL Western Conference’s top two teams.
The three players did their part in snapping Phoenix Rising’s 20-game winning streak with a 2-1 victory to improve Fresno’s second-place record to 16-5-8 (56 points).
Phoenix dropped to 22-3-5 (71 points).
Players and Smith called it an historic night for the second-year club.
“The main thing is our goalkeeper came up big and we’ve got the three points, and we broke that record (winning streak),” said Smith, whose team was coming off a record 5-0 win on Wednesday evening.
Smith gambled a bit by inserting Lawal in the second half.
That’s when Lawal responded with his rocket inside the box to give the home crowd something to cheer about.
“I knew that if we could, you know, keep the score 0-0 for a large part of the game and if I felt comfortable to to roll the dice a little bit and go after them,” said Smith about his decision to substitute Lawal into the match. “I just thought it was the right time to bring him in.”
Lawal, who notched his 10th goal of the campaign, likened the win to “sending a statement.”
“This is Fresno, and this is where we are,” said Lawal, who expressed confidence that he can come off the bench and contribute right away.
Smith was not pleased that Phoenix equalized nine minutes later. He thought Cochran should have chased down a floating cross.
After the match and Cochran’s penalty kick stops, Smith was singing Cochran’s play and blowing kisses to the spectators.
“We were the underdogs tonight, and I know we’re the home team, but I still feel we were the underdogs,” said Smith, whose left arm was in a sling due to an injury when he fell from a bicycle.
Chávez, the team leader in goals with a dozen goals, said he was confident in taking the penalty shot.
“I waited to see which way (the goalie) was doing to lean,” said Chávez about his decision to send his right-footed penalty kick into the lower, left-hand corner of the net.”
Asked if he felt the team would have to settle for a tie when Phoenix was awarded the penalty kicks on fouls for a hand ball, Chávez shrugged it off.
“He’s just a big man, and he’s doing great for us this season,” Chávez said of Cochran. “I knew he was gong to block both of them.”
Cochran guessed correctly on both shots, going to his right to smother a penalty kick by Solomon Asante. Minutes later, he barely got his fingertips on another penalty kick try by Asante after stretching his 6-foot-4 body to his left.
Cochran credits the coaching staff for compiling the tendencies of opponents.
“We’ve been doing our research, and it’s paid off the past couple of games,” said Cochran.