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Phoenix Rising announces return of 11 players for 2020 season

(Photo courtesy of Ashley Orellana)

Phoenix Rising’s 2019 season came to an end on Nov. 1 at the hands of a 2-1 defeat to Real Monarchs in the Western Conference semifinal at Casino Arizona Field.

But less than a week later, Rising is already working toward bringing home the one trophy that has eluded Phoenix each of the last two seasons, the USL Cup.

On Thursday, the club announced that 11 players from the historic 2019 side will be returning in 2020:

Goalkeeper: Zac Lubin

Fullbacks: Austin Ledbetter and Kyle Bjornethun

Center backs: Corey Whelan and A.J. Cochran

Midfielders: Kevon Lambert, Jose Aguinaga and Joey Calistri

Forwards: Solomon Asante, Adam Jahn and Junior Flemmings

“I am very excited to bring back a strong core from last year’s record-breaking squad,” manager Rick Schantz said in a press release.

“This is the type of foundation that allows greatness to be built upon. The search to add the highest quality players and people has already begun. I thank those who are not returning for their tremendous contributions and wish them well in their future endeavors.”

At first glance, we see that eight regular starters will be returning, so Phoenix has at least identified a base for who we should expect to see in next year’s starting XI.

Perhaps the biggest and most important names on that list are Asante, Jahn and Flemmings. The three forwards combined for 55 goals in 2019, making AJF the deadliest attacking trio in the USL Championship history. Not to mention the return of captain Solo, whose 22 goals won the Golden Boot and 17 assists set the league’s single-season record en route to what should be a unanimous MVP award crowning.

The next batch of names with paramount importance for next year’s side is Lubin, Cochran and Whelan, the latter of which quickly made his mark as the team’s best defender after only a handful of appearances since his signing in the summer. The former Liverpool U-23 captain also has the ability to play right back and defensive midfield as well.

And with Lubin solidifying himself as the team’s starting keeper after finishing tied atop the league with 14 clean sheets, Schantz will have his preferred keeper and center back pair combination for his defense-first, build-from-the-back philosophy.

Last but not least is the returning midfield trio of Lambert, Aguinaga and Calistri. And while these three might not have played together much this season, they all proved to be vital pieces of the puzzle in 2019.

Lambert and Aguinaga were regularly featured in Schantz’s starting XI, while Calistri gained super-sub status with his six goals (fourth-most on the team) and two assists in 31 appearances, 18 of which came as a substitute. The super-sub also brings the weapon of versatility to the table, as his ability to play both as a winger and in the midfield gives Schantz the option of platooning Calistri on the right flank in order for Asante to drop centrally when needed.

But the return of some also sees the departure of others:

Goalkeeper: Carl Woszczynski

Fullbacks: Amadou Dia and Mustapha Dumbuya

Center backs: Joey Farrell and Doueugui Mala

Midfielders: James Musa, Alessandro Riggi and Jon Bakero (end of loan from Toronto)

Forwards: Jason Johnson and Ben Spencer

Bakero — who will be returning to Toronto from loan —  is the name that will stick out the most on this list along with Dia and Dumbuya. All three were regular starters in Schantz’s system, but it was Dia who played the second-most minutes of any Rising player in 2019 behind Asante and was even given the captain’s armband in his absence.

Other notable departures include fan favorites such as Johnson and Riggi, who saw minimal and no action this season, respectively, due to injuries, and Woszczynski, who was the club’s longest tenured player.

Schantz and general manager Bobby Dulle will have their work cut out for them as they continue to construct next year’s roster.

But let’s not forget these two very important key points:

In 2018, Phoenix’s USL Cup Final run was heavily influenced by the likes of Didier Drogba, Chris Cortez, Mike da Fonte, Gladson Awako, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Billy Forbes, Kevaughn Frater, Collin Fernandez, Tristan Blackmon, Devin Vega and Shaft Brewer Jr.

Don’t recognize or remember seeing those names this year?

That’s because all of those on the aforementioned list were not a part of Rising’s historic 2019 campaign except for Fernandez, Blackmon, Vega and Brewer Jr., who all made their final appearance for the club before July.

So while the thought of replacing 10 players may sound daunting, realize that Phoenix just had the greatest regular season in league history after bringing in 11 new faces and eight new starters.

But the most important thing to remember is that this is Schantz’s second full offseason at the helm. And being that Asante, Lambert and Lubin are all that remain from the 2018 USL Cup Final squad, we’ll really start to see exactly the kind of team he wants to create.