Rising’s depth shines in preseason matches vs. Colorado Springs
CHANDLER, Ariz. — With less than two weeks remaining until Matchday 1 of the USL Championship campaign, Phoenix Rising FC needed to show it could score goals after suffering consecutive 1-0 defeats to MLS sides Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids.
At the club’s new practice facilities at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler on Saturday, PRFC did just that by scoring six goals over the course of two 75-minute matches against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
There were two important variables in Rising’s 6-3 aggregate win: the level of competition and the formation manager Rick Schantz deployed his team in.
Phoenix came out in a 3-4-3 in place of the usual 4-3-3. The most noticeable parts of the new three-back system were the number of outside defenders on the pitch and the additional attacking options it created in wide areas via overlapping and inverted runs.
With presumable starting center back James Musa still nursing an injury, Schantz went with a back three of Noah Billingsley, Joey Farrell and Darnell King in front of goalkeeper Andre Rawls. In the midfield, Kevon Lambert and Aodhan Quinn played in the center of the park while Deklan Wynne and Jeremy Kelly served as wingbacks on the outside. No changes were made up front with Solomon Asante, Rufat Dadashov and Santi Moar leading the way.
In the opening 75-minute period, Phoenix Rising created a plethora of chances in the final third but was only able to score one goal with its first unit, which came via Dadashov’s penalty.
37’ | GOAL Phoenix Rising
Rufat Dadashov converts from the penalty spot.
— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) April 17, 2021
The Azerbaijani could have had a brace, but the crossbar and Colorado Springs goalkeeper combined to make three saves to keep PRFC off the scoresheet in the final half hour.
And if that wasn’t unlucky enough, Switchbacks scored on a deflected own goal right on the final whistle to make it 3-1 after Colorado Springs had taken advantage of two Rising turnovers on the counterattack, both of which were converted into goals for the visitors.
“It was a 3-4-3 in the first group. It was okay. It had nothing to do with the formation. We just weren’t ready to play,” Schantz said after the matches. “We got outworked, outhustled and didn’t feel like playing today and that’s what happens when you play a young, aggressive, hungry team — we got spanked.”
“I probably don’t have to say a whole lot,” he added. “I guarantee that first group was sitting there, watching, wondering about their jobs.”
New 75-minute match. New starting XI.
In front of goalkeeper Zac Lubin was Tobi Adewole, who held the central center back spot with academy players Niall Dunn and Blaize Hardy to his right and left, respectively. Jon Bakero and Arturo Rodriguez controlled the midfield, while Ryan Flood and Joey Calistri ran up and down the wings. Ivan Gutierrez, Seyi Adekoya and Prince Saydee served up top as the three forwards.
It may have also been Colorado Springs’ second unit, but make no mistake — Phoenix dominated the second leg, winning 5-0.
PRFC’s pace was just too much for Switchbacks, whose high pressure left space in behind for the likes of Gutierrez, Adekoya and Saydee to all scorch their markers on balls over the top and either convert themselves or find a teammate trailing for an easy tap-in. Calistri added a goal of his own on a half-volley from outside the box after a defender headed the ball out of the box off a corner.
“The second group was humble and Colorado plays such high pressure that you have to play behind them,” Schantz said. “I think the first group today thought they could play through the pressure and they couldn’t and they made too many turnovers. The second group played in spaces behind and Seyi is very fast and so is Prince.
“So it’s a pretty simple solution: If the other team is all the way in your half and giving you space, you play behind them. As a club, we should be aware of that because for years we’ve been the highest-pressing team and teams play behind us and give us trouble.
“I’m really, really proud of that second group. I thought Prince was very dynamic — it’s what we saw when we signed him. And Seyi has really shown that he’s humble, willing to work and boy, he can run.”
While the result of the first leg may be disappointing, the performance of the second group shows how deep Phoenix Rising is compared to fellow USL Championship sides. And that’s a good thing — as that will bring pressure to both the first unit in training every day and Schantz when he goes to pick his starting XI.
“Whoever I pick, we just have to win,” Schantz said. “So I’ll pick the guys who I know are going to work hard, are going to be humble, are going to outwork the opponent. It’s not about how much you get paid or what you’ve done in the past — it’s about here and now.”
It also allows the manager to make subs and rotate guys in and out without having to worry about significant dropoff.
“The first group was not good. The second group was fantastic,” Schantz said. “So a little pressure and the gauntlet has been thrown down on them. I’m happy with our depth and I know that we still have some things to work on.”
“We were talking about it on the bench,” he added. “I don’t know if I’m more happy for the second group to put in five or more angry at the first group for their unwillingness to take what was given to them. In the end it’s great, we have 150 minutes of film that they’ll all be watching the next two days.”
2021 U.S. Open Cup postponed
This year’s Open Cup, which Phoenix had been slated to start in the Round of 16 in May, has been postponed due to ongoing issues from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holding the competition “in some fashion” later in the year is still being considered, as the winner will receive a 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot.
“It’s difficult. You have MLS teams that are flying charter flights everywhere and with the pandemic it’s very challenging,” Schantz said. “I don’t make those decisions. I just have to prepare the team. I am glad that we have a few midweek games that we don’t have to play this season, but it would have been fun to play an MLS team here.”
Phoenix Rising will host rival New Mexico United in a preseason friendly next Saturday at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.