‘It feels like a big club’: Schantz vision for Rising starting to show
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – After a breakout effort that led to the United Soccer League Cup Championship game, Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz set lofty goals for his squad before this season as expectations increased for professional soccer in Arizona.
Schantz didn’t necessarily expect the team to go on a historic winning streak, though. With the Rising on a 17-match winning streak, which is a USL record and the longest in American professional soccer history, national attention has grown.
It is also tied for the second longest in Arizona professional sports history with the Phoenix Suns in 2007, which is behind only the Arizona Rattlers with 18 consecutive wins in 2014. Schantz equates the success to his players buying into the system.
At this point, though, Schantz just continues to reemphasize the goals that he set out to achieve with his team before this season.
“It is great that we are winning games in a row,” Schantz said, “but the reality is that we set a goal (to approach the USL record for points in a season). … But I told them that there is no reason that we can’t win the Supporters’ Shield, be first in the Western Conference and have all the playoff games have to come through (Arizona).”
As the Rising continued to win throughout May and into July, there wasn’t much discussion within the locker room. But when the winning streak jumped to nine games, Schantz said the team started to feel some pressure as the USL record was reachable.
Although recognition continues to grow as the winning streak stays alive, he said relaxation set in when the Rising won against the Tulsa Roughnecks on July 27 for an 11th straight win, which broke the record FC Cincinnati set previously last season.
Although the Rising don’t want to lose or draw, goalkeeper Zac Lubin agrees with Schantz about how the pressure has started to fade.
“We have done so well and the winning streak is amazing, but it definitely motivates us to keep winning,” Lubin said. “In no way are we getting complacent. It is actually forcing us to want to win more. … We want to win so badly to keep it going, but the pressure isn’t there.”
Throughout the season, Rising players have continued to increase production, including Junior Flemmings and Adam Jahn, which have resulted in more milestones, especially for forward Solomon Asante. With 71 goals on the season, the Rising have already surpassed the team-high 64 goals from last season.
Asante recently scored his 20th goal to break the team record Chris Cortez set last season, and he also, now, has the USL record for most combined goals (20) and assists (14) in a season.
Asante said the accomplishments are significant to him because he and his teammates have put in so much work this season. He added that his success is not just by chance.
When asked about the success Asante has had, Lubin immediately issued praise, saying that Asante “raises the bar” every game with his performance and leadership to help the team.
“If he is out there performing like that day in and day out, that raises the level of the whole team,” Lubin said. “He is not just putting up stats. … He does so much for us, and he forces everyone to be better. He deserves everything and I know he is going to get a lot more goals and a lot more assists this season.”
Asante also supplied praise, saying that the Rising are “lucky” to have Lubin because he serves as the captain from the back.
Lubin has 12 clean sheets this season, which ties the team record Carl Woszczynski set last season. He is also close to the USL record that Maxime Crépeau (15) set in 2018 with the Ottawa Fury.
“I would love to break the USL record,” Lubin said. ”I think our whole team wants to because that is not just a stat for me. That is a stat for our whole backline, and even up to the frontline because our defense really starts from the way we press.”
Although there are eight games left in the regular season, the Rising have completed some goals that Schantz set before the season, including clinching a playoff berth. There are many other USL records that could be attainable for the Rising as a team.
However, a specific goal for the regular season that Schantz set still needs some work to achieve. Asante mentioned that goal, as well, but he said he knows it will be a challenge.
That goal was to break the USL record that FC Cincinnati set last season with 77 points. After a 2-2-5 start to the season, the Rising sit at 62 points with three home matches and five away matches left.
With a 4-3-1 finish, the Rising would tie that mark.
Despite the winning streak, Asante admits that he knows that won’t be easy to accomplish. With or without the 17-match winning streak intact, he said every game will be tough. San Antonio will have the next opportunity to upend the Rising on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field.
“All the teams will be well prepared for us because everyone wants to (beat) us and (someone wants to) say, ‘We are the team that stopped the Phoenix Rising,’” Asante said.
Asante, however, has confidence.
“You can’t predict soccer, but for now, I think we are going to win (the rest of our games),” Asante said.
As success has persisted, Lubin said the national attention has grown, but the home crowd has remained consistent. During the winning streak, though, he said that the fans have reached a new level with support for the Rising.
Schantz would agree, saying that his vision for the Rising has continued to take shape.
Schantz remembered back and reflected on his message to the ownership group before his interim coaching status was removed in November.
“I said, ‘We are going to build more than just a team, we are going to build a club,’” Schantz said. “To see that (FC Tucson) is doing well again, and we are getting players that come up from there and our youth club has been fantastic … the marketing, the media, all that stuff, it feels like a big club, and that is something that makes me proud.
“Naturally, big clubs get into playoffs and they win championships, and that is what we have to do.”