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Didn't they play them last week?: FC Tucson opens 1st pro playoffs against Richmond

Pearlman hopes same formula will win rematch vs. old Tucsonenses coach Sawatzky

There used to be a trope among soccer commentators when two players with some familiarity would have a clash on the field: “A little history there.” One could say that about FC Tucson’s first playoff match against the Richmond Kickers on Saturday night.

Kickers coach Darren Sawatzky was the coach of Sounders U23, and managed to beat FC Tucson, then a PDL team, on both occasions that the team met in the semi-pro playoffs.

He later coached FC Tucson in its first year as a pro franchise in 2019. Sawatzky’s thoughts about the season at Tucson, given in an interview with the Sentinel this week, are generally positive (“I love the town; I love the club”) with a sprinkling of bad memories about the status of Tucson as a “two club” for Phoenix Rising (“Rick [Shantz] took my four best players and gave me zero.”)

The connections between his time and what you see on the field today is tenuous, he says.

“There's not one player there that was there when I was there,” he said. “I didn't pick my line-ups. I was a ‘two team’. Jon (Pearlman) has carte blanche. He's got his own team...So it's a completely different project that way. But we've seen them this year. We know what they're about. They're playing good soccer.”

The “good soccer” that FC Tucson is playing was good enough to beat Richmond last Saturday, a win that guaranteed Tucson’s place in the playoffs and earned them a repeat go at the Kickers on Saturday. Considering that there are only twelve teams in the league and a relatively long season, repeating an opponent in the playoffs is not a complete surprise.

“It's not weird at all because the reality is in League One, we’re twelve teams. You play everybody so much,” Sawatzky said. “Two years ago, we played teams four times this year. We played a couple of teams four times, so we're pretty familiar with everybody. So it's just your adjustment and how you approach the game based on who you're playing against.”

As for the man that will be next to the other bench, Jon Pearlman has a simple idea of how to defeat Richmond. It looks an awful lot like how he approached most matches this season.

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“We're focused on the first 10 minutes against Richmond,” he said. “Can we score? Because when we score first, we're undefeated.”

“When we score first, when we get on the right foot, we feel like we can score again,” he added. “The confidence rises and we've proven that we're going to score multiple times and we're going to be dangerous. I've tried to work on the attacking shape so that we're in a better position to defend when we do lose the ball. But we've got creative guys and you just don't want to stifle them because they make magic out of what seems like nothing at times. Sometimes we don't score the easy goal, so they're an interesting one on your heart and your blood pressure.”

Despite that, Pearlman warns against looking for the team scoring four goals like they did last week. Richmond tends to play defensively and they have the best goalkeeper in the league in Akira Fitzgerald.

“Richmond is not attractive. They want to score first and then be able to bunker it,” he noted. “I mean, I would not intimate that Darren is playing for pens, but he doesn't have to score. I don't think he's going to come out of his little block until ever at any point, as long as he's going to be very content to go as far as he can wait for us to make mistakes. I don't expect a wide range of attacking”

“And I certainly think that it's unlikely that his goalkeeper is going to have a game like that because he is just excellent,” he added.

The match, the only home match FC Tucson will have in the playoffs, will kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday at Kino North Stadium.

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Joshua Pearson/TucsonSentinel.com

FC Tucson celebrates after beating the Richmond Kickers and earning a playoff spot on Saturday.