2019 Phoenix Rising look to avenge USL Cup final defeat
There’s a bad taste in the mouths of Phoenix Rising fans following the conclusion of last season.
Not only did the team lose 1-0 in the USL Cup Final to Louisville City, but PRFC fans also bid farewell to their beloved 40-year-old captain and part-owner Didier Drogba, as the first-ever player-owner in soccer history officially hung up his cleats following the 2018 season, thus ending a legendary 20-year career.
Drogba turns 41 on Monday.
To put it in perspective, in 2007, the former Chelsea striker finished fourth for the player of the year award behind former Orlando City midfielder Kaka, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The fire that’s burning inside me right now to get to work and start preparing for next year,” Phoenix Rising manager Rick Schantz said during the press conference following the cup final match.
“I’ll always be able to remember watching them raise that cup. It’s a moment I won’t ever forget. It’s burned in my memory. There’s going to be drive and desire and passion to get back here and lift that cup ourselves.”
Schantz, who became interim-manager in June, won his first four games, was named USL’s manager of the month for June and was officially named manager just six days after the 1-0 loss to Lou City.
Phoenix Rising FC kickoff the new season Saturday night in an away matchup with San Antonio FC and will return for their home opener against New Mexico United on March 16.
A new season means new faces will be donning the PRFC kit this season.
There were questions heading into the season about the squad’s depth defensively compared to how deep it is in the midfield and up front, but the front office has continued to do a good job bringing in MLS talent on loan to fill those voids.
Phoenix Rising FC announced Thursday that LAFC defender Lamar Batista will be joining the club on loan. The 6-foot-5 20-year-old played for Portland Timbers 2 last season where he lost to PRFC in the first round of the USL playoffs. In 2017, he was named to the USL’s 20 Under 20 list.
Logan Gdula is a defender that is on loan from FC Cincinnati. The new MLS side selected the 22-year-old with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest.
Jose Aguinaga, a former Real Madrid youth product, is coming over from New York Red Bulls II where last season he netted six goals and was second on the team in assists with six. The Spanish midfielder also had 37 key passes, which ranked fourth on the club.
A.J. Cochran is another defender that is new to the Valley. The 26-year-old spent last season captaining Atlanta United 2 while also leading the club in blocks, tackles, duels won, and aerial duels won.
Adam Jahn is the most MLS experienced transfer of Phoenix’s busy offseason. The 6-foot-3 striker spent seven years in the MLS playing for the San Jose Earthquakes (2013-16) and Columbus Crew (2016-18). The former Stanford Cardinal also won the 2014 USL Cup while on loan to Sacramento Republic.
Junior Flemmings is another forward with a USL Cup already under his belt. Flemmings won the 2016 USL Cup with New York Red Bulls II and was ranked No. 6 in USL’s Top 20 under 20 list. The Jamaican played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies last season, leading the team with five assists, scoring six goals (tied for second), and being named to Week 11’s team of the week and Week 19’s player of the week.
Although Alessandro Riggi isn’t technically a new face, he may seem like one to Phoenix Rising fans that might’ve joined the party late last season.
Riggi is a Montreal Impact and Sampdoria youth product that spent time playing in Italy and Spain before joining PRFC in 2017.
The 25-year-old Canadian scored two goals and was named USL’s Week 9 player of the week before going down for the year with a knee injury in early August. Riggi’s five assists finished tied for second on the team despite having only played in 14 games.
But with arrivals comes departures as the team also lost some considerably important pieces to the squad.
Phoenix’s biggest offseason loss is without a doubt Chris Cortez. The club’s all-time leading goal scorer (31) also set the single-season goals scored record last season with 19, which finished tied for fourth in all of the USL. A hamstring injury kept Cortez from playing in the 2018 USL Cup final.
PRFC lost two of its starting defenders from that cup final in Saad Abdul-Salaam and Tristan Blackmon as both of their loan spells came to an end, sending them back to their MLS sides.
Phoenix also lost the likes of Mike da Fonte, who last season was second amongst Rising FC defenders in starts (30), matches played (31) and minutes (2,699), and Gladson Awako, who finished third amongst Phoenix midfielders for starts (23) and minutes (1833).
But even though the team is losing almost half of its starting XI from last year, the majority of PRFC’s core are returning for 2019.
Phoenix’s longest-tenured player and goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski (Woz) is entering his fifth year with the club and coming off a career year in which he set single-season club records for clean sheets (13), most consecutive clean sheets in a single season (5) and most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal (491). He’s also the club’s all-time leader in clean sheets (23), games played (85) and minutes (7,560).
The other two starting defenders from last year’s USL Cup final were Amadou Dia and Joey Farrell. Both will be available for Schantz this season after playing every minute of the 2018 playoff run.
Dia’s 2018 campaign saw him create the third-most chances on the team (31), finish second on the team in tackles (30) and third in clearances (85). He also led the entire team in minutes (3086) and was named to the USL’s Week 5 team of the week.
Farrell finished 2018 second on the team in aerial duels won (92) and clearances (112) and third amongst all Rising FC defenders in minutes (2,225), games played (26) and starts (24). He was also the leading goal scorer (4) of a defense that set a single-season club record for the most clean sheets in a season (15).
Only two players played more minutes than Kevon Lambert last season. The midfielder led the club in tackles (59), duels won (118) and long pass completion percentage (60.7 percent) amongst players with 100 or more long passes. He also has eight caps for the Jamaican National Team.
Midfielder James Musa finished his 2018 campaign seventh on the team in minutes (2,126) but was unable to play in the entirety of the postseason due to a lower-body injury. The New Zealand international has three caps for his country.
After being nagged by injury last season, forward Jason Johnson finished third on the team in goals (9) and fifth in minutes (2,331). His blazing pace and acrobatic finishes named him to USL’s Week 8 team of the week and Week 14’s player of the week.
Last but certainly not least is team captain Solomon Asante. The Ghanaian has 17 career caps for his country and his 14 goals finished second on the team last season. He also led the team in assists (9), matches played (36) and chances created (108), 71 more than the team’s next highest chance creator. Asante’s 2018 campaign earned him USL First-Team All-League honors.
Phoenix Rising FC finished its 2018 campaign just three points shy of the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference, scoring 72 goals along the way (second most in the conference). PRFC also tied for the league lead in clean sheets (17) and tied for the conference lead in red cards (6). Lambert led the team in red cards last season after being sent off twice.
Preseason hype and buzz has created a feeling of a championship or bust season for the first time in club history.
There is no question that this team has the talent to compete for the 2019 USL Cup after bringing back most of its core players and reloading with both young talent signings and MLS loanees to make up for offseason departures.
Schantz will decide how far this team goes. He will now have to manage the added pressure that goes along with the enormity of his side’s expectations this season. And with FC Cincinnati now in the MLS, the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 USL Playoffs is up for grabs.
If Phoenix can find a way to make it back to the final and host it this time around, the trophy that they left behind in Louisville last November might just find its way to the Valley after all.