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Rising signs 16-year-old Valley native Niall Dunn to academy contract

Phoenix Rising defender Niall Dunn (middle) plays against Colorado Springs Switchbacks in a preseason friendly on a training pitch at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler on April 18, 2021. (Owain Evans Photo)

Phoenix Rising FC announced the signing of 16-year-old defender Niall Dunn to an academy contract on Monday.

Dunn is a Valley native who goes to Hamilton High School in Chandler and spent time with several Phoenix-based youth clubs before landing with PRFC’s academy.

Don’t let the fact that Dunn has only been able to legally drive in Arizona for six months fool you.

The defender held his weight against the likes of MLS opposition during the 2021 preseason as both a right back and center back.

“Playing against MLS opponents, it’s crazy to think that one day I’m playing against kids my age and the next I’m playing against professionals,” Dunn said in a press release. “Getting minutes against them has been an amazing opportunity for me. Once the club set a date for me to officially sign the contract, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe the work I put in has brought me this far.

“(Fullback) Darnell King and (midfielder) Jon Bakero have been great mentors to me. They’re always giving me advice on how to improve. It’s a lot quicker pace. The intensity is higher. Going from academy games and training sessions to the pro level — the first few days I was really in shock of how fast it was, but now I feel more comfortable after playing at this level for over a month.”

Those minutes weren’t just in “garbage time” toward the end of friendlies, either.

Due to injuries and rotations within in the squad while guys were still trying to get 90-minute match fit, Dunn started against MLS sides Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake.

The 16-year-old also started the second half of March 16’s friendly against Colorado Rapids, as well as coming on for an injured Noah Billingsley 20 minutes into PRFC’s contest against Rapids on April 10.

In Saturday’s 2-1 preseason finale win over FC Tucson, Dunn started alongside center back partner James Musa and was once again a noticeably impactful player on the pitch.

“Niall has shown a maturity that you don’t see often at his age,” manager Rick Schantz said in the release. “His composure as a center back, playing in such high-level games shows he has a bright future. It’s just the start for this young man. We are glad he is part of our organization.”

And with a plethora of midweek games on short rest sprinkled throughout the 32-match regular season, perhaps there’s a chance the center back can log some minutes this year — whether that be due to injury, suspension or rest.

“Niall has done a really good job and technically we only have three center backs signed to pro contracts, so there’s always a possibility — hopefully it’s not due to injury or fatigue,” Schantz added via Zoom on Tuesday.

“Generally, center backs can do those Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday rotations and if I have to give one of them a rest, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not going to make a promise, but hopefully we’re doing well enough in the season that we can get him out there and get him some minutes at this level.”

Dunn will be going to a U.S. National Team camp next month along with academy teammate Blaize Hardy. Fifteen-year-old forward Ansuh Kanneh was also invited.

“Our goals are not to just make a pro that can play for Phoenix Rising,” Schantz said.

“Our goal is to make a U.S. Men’s National Team player and to produce somebody at that level so then you’re not just getting a Phoenix Rising player — you’re getting an impact guy that maybe could be sold or even signed to a long-term contract. So the bar is set much, much higher than just playing in the USL.”

Phoenix Rising now has 23 players signed to its squad ahead of the 2021 USLC campaign — including academy contracts — which begins on April 30 against San Diego Loyal SC at Wild Horse Pass:

Goalkeepers: Zac Lubin, Andre Rawls (loan) and Edward Delgado

Fullbacks: Darnell King, Joey Calistri, Deklan Wynne, Ryan Flood and Noah Billingsley (loan)

Center backs: Joey Farrell, Tobi Adewole, James Musa and Niall Dunn

Midfielders: Jon Bakero, Kevon Lambert, Aodhan Quinn, Arturo Rodriguez and Jeremy Kelly (loan)

Forwards: Solomon Asante, Rufat Dadashov, Santi Moar, Ivan Gutierrez, Prince Saydee and Seyi Adekoya