Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.

Welcome back to Rising Tactics Recap, a weekly column where I attempt to provide insight to Phoenix Rising fans by breaking down some strategic and tactical observations from Phoenix’s latest match.

Have you recovered from Saturday night’s drama? 

No? I don’t blame you. Phoenix Rising’s 4-2 win over the Portland Timbers 2 this past weekend was truly insane.

Three lead-changes over the course of one game is a rare sight in a soccer game, but that is exactly what happened on Saturday. Phoenix took the lead in the first half, Portland took it back in the second half, and Phoenix claimed it once and for all in stoppage time. 

Amadou Dia’s 94th minute go-ahead goal was scored directly in front of the supporters’ section and put Phoenix Rising in position to win their eighth straight USL Championship game.

As Phoenix fans saw at the beginning of the season, winning games is a difficult task. A momentary lapse in judgment or a small, seemingly irrelevant mistake can quickly lead to a loss. Winning a single game is impressive, but winning eight-straight league games? That is an incredible achievement. 

On Saturday against Portland, Phoenix had to come from behind to regain the lead for the first time in 35 days. However, this game was different than the last time that Phoenix Rising found themselves behind (May 25th against the Real Monarchs). Statistically, the game against the Monarchs was at least somewhat close: both teams had similar shooting and passing numbers.

Statistically, the game against T2 was not close. Phoenix was the better team: they had many more shots and shots on target and owned the ball throughout the match. Tactically, Phoenix displayed some of the same attacking rotations that we’ve seen over the last two months, overloaded the outside of Portland’s 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 defensive shape, and had moments of sustained possessed in and around their opponent’s box. 

Looking better on the stat sheet and with the eye test and still not being able to capitalize on enough of your chances to be in the lead after 93 minutes is frustrating. 

For example, this sequence from the 13th minute was nearly perfect, but ended in nothing. 

Jon Bakero dropped deep and pulled T2’s left central midfielder out of position, which opened up space for Doueugui Mala to play the ball forward to Solomon Asante. As Asante moved into the space vacated by Portland’s midfielder, Mustapha Dumbuya made a run in behind his marker. After some clean combination play, Dumbuya had the ball behind the opposing backline and played a lovely ball into Joey Calistri, who couldn’t quite finish. 

Despite creating a number of dangerous chances in the early moments of the game, it looked like Phoenix Rising were going to drop points at home…until they clawed their way back into the lead in the 94th minute, that is. Dia’s late goal proved that Phoenix can fight against and overcome adversity. 

That alone has value. 

Obviously, players, coaches, and fans would rather win every game 4-0, but that is simply not possible in a competitive league like the USL Championship. Having experience playing from behind will only help Phoenix as the season progresses.

In his postgame comments to the media, Coach Rick Schantz said, “For the future we know we’re going to have difficult games and now we had one [where] we know we won in a difficult situation, so I can use it for film for sure.”

For the players, having a data point to look back on later in the year when things aren’t going as smoothly as they have been for the last eight games will be a helpful tool. For the coaches, being able to look back at the film from this game and examine how effective the second half attacking structure and substitutes were will be key.

When the year is over, Saturday’s come-from-behind win over T2 will likely be remembered as an important milestone from the 2019 season – and also the game where fans got a few more grey hairs.

The Final Third:

  • Jon Bakero’s vision and passing range is absurd. He sees passes that no one else does and actually has the ability to execute those passes. Between his cross-field long balls, line-splitting balls into the attack, and chipped balls into the box, Bakero is a huge asset to Phoenix Rising’s possession play. Keep your eyes peeled for a breakdown of Bakero’s game over at at some point in the next few weeks. 
  • As good as Phoenix’s attack has been, I do have a few questions about their midfield’s defensive work. At least two or three times a game, a gap develops between Phoenix’s midfield and defensive lines. Portland almost scored a third goal by playing into that gap. Kevon Lambert covers lots of ground, so missing him is definitely part of why Phoenix have some open space in their defensive shape, but even once Lambert returns, it will be worth watching to see if opposing teams can exploit that central space.
Look at the pocket of space right in front of the back four in this sequence.
  • Doueugui Mala deserves some love. Just a couple of weeks ago, he filled in admirably for AJ Cochran at left center back. With Joey Farrell suspended on Saturday, Mala slid over to right center back and did an excellent job there too. His comfort on the ball is improving every game and his speed is extremely valuable in the back.

Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Rising Tactics Recap! Check later this week for more insight and analysis.

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