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Maturity, defense keys to success for Rising’s Amadou Dia

It takes a lot to smile while training in over 100-degree heat, but Amadou Dia manages it (Photo by Owain Evans/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – It’s rare that a defender scores two goals. In fact, it has happened just once in the history of Phoenix Rising – last Saturday, with a pair from Amadou Dia.

Of course, it could have been a hat trick had Dia been handed the ball for a penalty kick deep in stoppage time. Instead, it was taken by Golden Boot-chasing Solomon Asante.

“I hope he wins it,” Dia said. “Now that he didn’t let me get my hat trick, he’d better win it!”

Dia’s smile is infectious, and his antics at the club are a test of a person’s ability not to laugh. Just moments earlier, he had been pulling a teammate around in a small cart.

Yet balancing that fun has been a challenge in the past.

“When I first came out here, really I was really immature and ignorant,” Dia said, “and you know Phoenix is a big party town.”

“One of the biggest challenges for him his entire career has been the difference between on the field and off the field,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “He’s one of the most intense competitors that there is. He works hard, he plays hard and he pushes himself in the offseason to relax and enjoy.

“But what I think he’s matured over his time as a pro is setting limits and understanding that when I’m off the field, I still have to be a pro.”

Dia says he’s pushing himself to be a better leader, and to put the sport and his team first. In doing so, he looks up to Asante, Rising’s captain.

That change is being noted.

“When (Dia) has a fantastic match like Saturday,” Schantz said, “he’s not out in the wee hours.

“I knew that Sunday he was getting treatment and taking care of his body, and that’s a big testament to Amadou. So I think the culture is being set in the club that that’s what it takes to win. Yes, we want to enjoy victories, but we have to move on to the next match. And he’s really matured a lot, and I’m very proud of him for that.”

Life has been a journey for Dia, moving all the way from France to San Francisco at the age of 7.

“I remember it was June 11, three days after my birthday, that we moved,” Dia says. “It was just crazy, it was surreal. When we first moved, I didn’t know how to speak any English or anything like that.

“It was a process getting acclimated. There were seven of us – my whole family – so it was kind of hard getting acclimated, but we got through it and now I’m grateful for it.”

He hasn’t forgotten where he came from, though, forming part of a small group of Rising players that speak French to each other.

“Me and Riggi speak French,” Dia said. “Me and Solo speak French. Me and Mala speak French. I try to speak it to them as often as I can because I don’t want to lose it.”

It was Rising fans who were afraid of losing Dia back in preseason, as he spent a week with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC.

“It was amazing,” Dia said. “That club and what they’re doing, the atmosphere they have, the chemistry, the relationship they have with the fans and the community. What Bob Bradley’s doing with the coaching staff and the owners they have, you can tell everybody’s really bought in.”

However, he returned to the Rising after just two matches, slotting in at left back. It’s a position he’s settled into, despite frequently enjoying a trip further forward.

“I used to be a forward, most of my life, until I got to Clemson and coach Noonan put me back at left back, and said he wanted me to be a Marcello type of fullback,” Dia said.

Despite absences further upfield through injuries and international duty, and despite his dabbling up there last season, Schantz is committed to playing Dia at the back.

“The way that we’re playing, we want our left back to be – when we’re in possession and in the offensive half – we want them to be wide, almost as a wing,” Schantz said. “So if we moved him up, he’d have to play different.”

“Just moving him forward, it’s not as simple as what people think. The way we play, he’s perfectly suited for our system, and the system is suited well for him.”

“The main thing I focus on, with me and Rambo (Peter Ramage), is defend first,” Dia said. “Defend first, and then attacks. Back in the day, it used to be attack first, and then defense.”

He still gets those attacks in, though, and on days like Saturday, they pay off.

“I was a bit mad at myself for missing so many chances that we created, and I should have put away, in previous games,” Dia said. “So for me to score two goals in one game after all the crap I’ve been getting from all the guys, it meant a lot to me.”

Goals aside, the aim for the team is to return to the USL Cup Final and make amends for last year’s defeat.

“If you don’t believe that we can do it, then what’s the point of playing?” Dia said. “We’re confident we can do it. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t get too comfortable.”

Sitting comfortably on top of the USL Championship Western Conference, Rising is certainly making the case that it can do just that, and they’ll be doing it all with Amadou Dia at the left back position.

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