Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.

Reno came to play on Tuesday night. 

Defensively, they used a disciplined 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 shape to press Phoenix Rising’s backline and force goalkeeper Zac Lubin to play the ball long. Offensively, they showed an impressive ability to pass the ball out of the back, in between Phoenix’s defensive lines, and into wide areas deep in Phoenix’s half. 

Overall, Reno looked dangerous. They generated six shots on target, looked confident in their defensive scheme, and to my eye, established themselves as a Western Conference contender. The only issue for Reno was that they were stuck playing Phoenix Rising on Tuesday night. Reno played a good game of soccer and still lost 3-0. 

That is how difficult Phoenix are to beat right now. By topping Orange County and Reno 3-0 in each of their last two matches, Phoenix Rising proved that they can play (and win) against some of the most talented and best coached teams in the West. 

Phoenix’s attack looks like a well-oiled machine right now, largely because the players are abiding by the number one rule of possession-soccer: always look for the free man. Unless you are playing against a hyper-aggressive man-marking defense, there is almost always a free, or open, player in possession. If a team can find that free player and then that player can find the next free player, and so on, the ball will move up the field with ease.

Phoenix Rising have gotten better and better at finding the free man as the season has progressed. The fullbacks, midfield, and front three are confident rotating into different areas of the field, combining, and switching play from side-to-side. Those basic principles make it very tough for opposing teams to stop Phoenix’s attack.

Now, I asked you all for questions on Twitter, either about Tuesday’s match or about anything Phoenix Rising-related. You can’t have a mailbag without answering some questions, so let’s get into it.

I’ve made some odd correlations between wacky on-field incidents and tactical planning. Earlier this season, I used a play when an opposing goalkeeper fell squarely on his rear end to help illustrate an idea behind Phoenix’s tactical game plan. But unfortunately even I cannot come up with a tactical reason for why selling low-priced liquor makes it impossible for teams to beat Phoenix Rising on $1 Beer Nights. 

Sorry, Sam.

Mark Murray, Jake Anderson, and I were actually just talking about this idea in the press box last week. I’m still not willing to say that Mustapha Dumbuya is putting in amazing defensive shifts, but his improvement at right back is definitely worth noting.

I think there are a couple of reasons why Dumbuya has started to look like a more solid defensive presence. First, I believe that he has improved his individual defensive abilities. At the beginning of the season, Dumbuya’s defensive footwork was loose and he would occasionally rush into tackles. Now, his footwork looks cleaner and he is making fewer rash challenges. 

Second, Dumbuya has improved chemistry with Joey Farrell. At the start of the year, Dumbuya and Farrell really hadn’t had time to establish any on-field rhythm. Now that they have been playing next to each other for a number of games, they have a better defensive connection.

Finally, I think the biggest factor behind Dumbuya’s observable defensive improvement is due to Phoenix’s increased reliance on their high press. Because Phoenix Rising are applying more high pressure, they are spending less time in a low or mid-block. Less time in a defensive block means more opportunities for Dumbuya to use his speed to close down players higher up the field and fewer opportunities for him to have to defend against an opposing attacker closer to Phoenix’s goal. 

When I asked Joey Calistri about Phoenix’s high press on Saturday night, he said: “We’ve been working on that the last couple weeks and with the personnel that we have, we have a lot of fast/athletic guys and I think we use that to our advantage.” 

Calistri almost perfectly describes Dumbuya’s situation. Dumbuya is now free to use his athleticism to defend in the open field.

High pressing has its benefits, but it also has its draw backs… 

One of the biggest weakness that Phoenix have shown is actually inside their high press: it’s the gap between the attacking players and the backline.

This sequence is a good example:

The front three and midfield three are engaged in the press and leave a large area of space vacant in front of the backline. Reno break through and push forward directly into the wide-open middle of the field. 

The area between the pressers (typically some combination of the front six and the fullbacks) and the backline is certainly not always this wide-open, but there have been moments in the last couple of games where open lanes in the middle of the field could have been exploited.

Reno did a better job of playing into that space than Orange County did, but so far, no team has managed to make Phoenix Rising pay for having a gap in their press. If I was Steve Cooke preparing my Oklahoma City Energy team to play Phoenix on Saturday, I would spend some time drawing up different ways to position players behind Phoenix’s pressing midfield line.

Seven teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs in Major League Soccer, so that means Phoenix Rising would have to finish the season as one of the best seven teams in the West to make the postseason. Could they sneak into the playoffs? Sure. Is it likely? Even in their blisteringly-hot form, it’s hard for me to envision Phoenix finishing in the top-seven.

LAFC, the LA Galaxy, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, and Portland have strong claims to six of the playoff spots and RSL, Minnesota United, Vancouver, and SKC (if they can ever get healthy) could very well battle it out for the final spot.

Phoenix Rising have a very talented squad and could certainly beat a number MLS teams, but I believe that the talent gap between one of the USL Championship’s best teams and MLS’s playoff line is still probably too large to be bridged.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions! Keep your eyes peeled for more mailbags throughout the rest of the season.

5 thoughts on “A Reno recap, plus a mailbag

    1. That’s a fantastic question. I think the biggest place that Phoenix misses Lambert is in the press because of the sheer amount of ground he covers. Lambert should improve the press by limiting space between the lines when he gets back from the Gold Cup.

    1. Cochran is fully cleared to play, but because Mala hasn’t faltered at the left center back spot next to Joey Farrell, AJ is going to have to be patient, perform well in training, and fight his way back into the starting eleven. That could happen by Saturday or it could happen a month from now.

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