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Rick Schantz: 2020 Phoenix Rising ‘more dynamic’ than last season

(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC)

How do you follow the greatest regular-season campaign in league history? How can you?

Well, Phoenix Rising FC will attempt to answer that question in 2020 after winning the 2019 USL Championship regular-season title and breaking the league’s all-time records for points, wins, goals, goal differential, and of course, the illustrious 20-game win streak — the longest in the history of North American outdoor soccer.

As a result, manager Rick Schantz was named the Manager of the Year and captain Solomon Asante took home the MVP after winning the Golden Boot and setting a league record for the most combined goals and assists in a single season.

“Last year’s team, you caught lightning in a bottle there on a 20-game win streak,” Schantz told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf alongside general manager Bobby Dulle during Newsmakers Week on Monday.

“To say that we would do that again would be pretty impressive. I think this year’s team, they are a little bit more dynamic all the way through from top to bottom. I think last year’s team had some outstanding attacking players and defensively, we were just extremely aggressive. This year, I feel like we can dominate games. Teams will sit back in a low block and we’ve just added a couple of pieces that I think are are much better passers and technically more aware. It’s a really intelligent team. They’re definitely challenging the coaching staff.”

For those in need of a reference point, Rising’s 2019 and 2020 seasons are equivalent to the Golden State Warriors’ 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. In both teams’ first of the two seasons, the two sides managed to have the greatest regular seasons in the history of their respective leagues, a unanimous MVP and the Coach of the Year, but failed to bring home the championship trophy. Both squads then loaded up by acquiring some of the best talent possible in Kevin Durant and the culmination of 10 signings this offseason. Golden State would go on to win it all in 2016-17.

However, Schantz won’t grade his team’s season based on whether or not Phoenix wins the USL Championship Final. He has been adamant that being the best at the end of a 34-game season is how you should judge last year’s regular-season title winners rather than a four- or five-game playoff run. A playoff system is unique to American soccer, as most of the world doesn’t use one and crowns its champion at the conclusion of the regular season.

Of the nine new faces that will be donning Rising kits in 2020, three are forwards, wingers — more attacking-minded players. In fact, Phoenix is only returning two of its true forwards in Asante and Junior Flemmings following the sale of Adam Jahn for a reported $100,000 to MLS side Atlanta United. The club replaced its former No. 9 with the addition of former Preussen Muenster (German third division) striker Rufat Dadashov, as well as the loan signing of Atlanta’s Lagos Kunga.

Returning makeshift attackers or forwards that can also be deployed in the midfield are Jon Bakero and Joey Calistri. The additions of Jack Barmby, Jordan Schweitzer and Sam Stanton round out the rest of the midfield along with returning starters Kevon Lambert and Jose Aguinaga after James Musa joined MLS side Minnesota United on a free transfer.

There wasn’t quite as much turnover in the defensive end of the pitch. Following the departure of 2019’s starting left back Amadou Dia and right back Mustapha Dumbuya, Phoenix signed left back Owusu-Ansah Kontor and right back Darnell King. Dia and Dumbuya left on free transfers to MLS side Sporting KC and USL Championship side Tampa Bay Rowdies, respectively.

Fullbacks Austin Ledbetter and Kyle Bjornethun, and center backs Corey Whelan, A.J. Cochran and Joey Farrell complete the backline. Following Saturday’s 6-2 preseason win over GCU, Schantz said that having a fourth center back is a luxury and not usually a team necessity, and that the club would have to rely on local youth talent. He specifically mentioned the team’s relationship with the Barca Residency Academy in Casa Grande.

However, 2018 and 2019 saw the signings of a fourth center back midway through the regular season in Tristian Blackmon of MLS side LAFC and former Liverpool U-23 captain Whelan. The two played crucial roles in each of their respective playoff runs. Ledbetter could also be used in an emergency situation, as the right back has played center back previously in his career.

Rising’s most recent acquisition is the loan signing of Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Dick after Carl Woszczynski — the most tenured player in PRFC history — hung up the gloves at the conclusion of last season. When asked who the starting man between the sticks will be this year, Schantz simply replied, “It’s a competition.” Last season, Zac Lubin took over for Woszczynski as the team’s full-time starter after Rising drew its first four matches in which Phoenix allowed eight goals and accumulated only one clean sheet.

It would be foolish to even attempt to predict the starting XI come Matchday 1, as the 2019 Manager of the Year has proven that he is willing to shake up his lineup based on the aforementioned competition in training.

“We’re going to continue to play a style of soccer that’s going to be very entertaining,” Dulle said. “We have some dynamic players up top, the depth that we have this year and the type of people — that’s one thing we stressed in the offseason. We have some really good people, good character guys, good leaders.

“You need those type of guys when you get into a one-game playoff match. You need those guys through the dog days of summer.”

Dulle also said that there will be announcements this week that include fan promotions and theme nights. Yes, that includes the infamous $1 beer nights that Phoenix has a 15-1-0 record on. The one loss came in the team’s last match of 2019, a 2-1 defeat in the Western Conference semifinal to eventual USL Championship Final champions Real Monarchs.

The club has three more publicly accessible preseason matches via the Visit Tucson Sun Cup in which Rising will host MLS sides Columbus Crew (Feb. 15), Sporting KC (Feb. 17) and Real Salt Lake (Feb. 22). All the games will kick off at 7 p.m.

Phoenix will open up league play on March 7 at Casino Arizona Field against Portland Timbers 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Rising’s 2020 roster:

Goalkeeper: Zac Lubin and Eric Dick (loan)

Fullbacks: Austin Ledbetter, Kyle Bjornethun, Owusu-Ansah Kontor and Darnell King

Center backs: Corey Whelan, A.J. Cochran and Joey Farrell

Midfielders: Kevon Lambert, Jose Aguinaga, Joey Calistri, Jack Barmby, Jon Bakero, Jordan Schweitzer and Sam Stanton

Forwards: Solomon Asante, Junior Flemmings, Santi Moar, Rufat Dadashov and Lagos Kunga (loan)