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Rising into playoffs? MLS loan players could impact club’s postseason

Phoenix Rising start training in the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex in Scottsdale with the last six USL games in mind. Rising will look to overcome the first playoff round for the first time in their history. (Photo by Ricardo Ávila/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Phoenix Rising’s 2018 United Soccer League season is down to crunch time. With six regular season games left and one point separating them from first place in the Western Conference, the Rising have three club records in sight: most club points in a single season, most goals scored in a single season and best-ever finish.

With the ghost of last year’s penalty kick playoff loss looming as elimination rounds approach, the Rising aren’t just sitting back waiting for the season to wind down. They brought in four more players on loan from MLS clubs to bolster their bid to raise the championship trophy in November.

Tristan Blackmon, Shaft Brewer Jr. and Josh Perez from Los Angeles FC, and Saad Abdul-Salaam from New York City FC, all arrived to the club within the past month. The result: four wins with 13 goals for and three against.

“I think the sky’s the limit. I’m here and I want to win a championship,” Blackmon said. “We’re at one of the top USL teams.”

Blackmon, a defender, arrived in Phoenix on Aug. 14 and has played four games for the club. He was recalled by LAFC for the Sept. 1 game against Toronto FC and returned to Phoenix three days later.

MLS players loaned to USL clubs with a right to recall incorporated into their loan agreement can be recalled by the parent MLS club at any time, according to MLS rules and regulations.

“I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, I would say I have to be on my toes a little bit,” Blackmon said. “Right now, I’m focused on being here. And then, I don’t really think about being back there too much until I get the call from L.A.”

Blackmon, who was a first-round 2018 MLS SuperDraft pick, lives in Tempe along with many of the Rising players. He shares the same apartment complex as fellow defender Abdul-Salaam.

Abdul-Salaam belongs to NYCFC but played three seasons in MLS with Sporting Kansas City and was named their Defender of the Year in 2016 after starting in 26 games. He was signed by the Rising on Aug. 13.

“When you’re not getting consistent playing time, you look for a loan. There was interest here and everything Phoenix has, I was interested in coming,” Abdul-Salaam said. “I was thrilled and excited that I was able to go on loan to an organization like Phoenix.”

Abdul-Salaam was close to joining NYCFC affiliate USL club San Antonio FC, but his friendship with former Sporting Kansas City teammate and current Rising midfielder Amadou Dia ultimately made him choose Phoenix.

“I like the people of Phoenix. I get the feel it’s a hardworking city and they appreciate seeing hard work and getting the results,” he said.

Abdul-Salaam emphasized the importance of getting playing time under his belt, be it in the USL or in the MLS.

The main difference between MLS-hopeful Rising and current MLS teams is resources, according to Abdul-Salaam. Both he and Blackmon said the playing level in both leagues is competitive.

And even though Abdul-Salaam said he doesn’t know if he’s going to stay with Rising beyond this season, he has a clear-cut image of how he wants this season to end.

“I don’t see anything else than lifting the trophy,” he said.

Players such as Blackmon and Abdul-Salaam, coupled with Brewer Jr. and Perez, can have a big impact on the team, according to head coach Rick Schantz.

Brewer Jr. and Perez have represented the U.S. national team in youth divisions and have added to competition within the team.

“Players that have come in have done really well so the guys that kind of lost their position, they understand and know this is professional football. It’s not youth soccer anymore,” Schantz said. “You don’t just complain, you just have to work harder to get better and compete more.”

Schantz used his long time friendship with LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov to help bring in some of the MLS loanees.

“Our relationship I think allowed us to always have open dialogue,” he said.

Schantz had talked to Razov before officially taking over former Rising head coach Patrice Carteron’s job in Phoenix. When he became the man in charge, Schantz met with LAFC head coach Bob Bradley and his staff.

Together with Rising general manager Bobby Dulle, they hashed out deals that, “seemed very organic\” and beneficial for both sides, Schantz said.

Schantz said players like playing for Rising because “the organization does a  good job with these players. We do treat them the way they should be treated, at the highest level.”

He clarified the MLS loanees weren’t brought in because team quality was lacking.

“Bringing guys in specific positions does not mean there were not good players there. It just means we were looking for players to do something different,” he said.

But results don’t lie.

Rising sits in third place at 53 points, only five short of last season’s tally. The team one point ahead in first, Orange County SC, has an extra game in hand.

A strong end to the season can have tremendous repercussion on their championship aspirations, Schantz said.

“For me to go past the first round of the playoffs, the biggest advantage would be to be playing at home,” he said.

Reliving the penalty kick playoff loss against eventual finalists Swope Park Rangers in 2017, Schantz said Phoenix’s fate could’ve been different had they played at home.

“We thought that had we won that, maybe we end up in the USL Cup final,” he said.

And with the MLS loanees’ time at with Rising possibly coming to end in less than two months, Blackmon is confident the team can raise the cup in November.

“Bet on us,” he said.

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