The soccer world never sleeps, so even though Phoenix Rising have this weekend off, there are several other competitions still underway. Domestic leagues like MLS, the USL Championship, and the USL League One are in full swing and international competitions like the Women’s World Cup, Gold Cup, Copa América, and the Africa Cup of Nations are going on as well.
Because the USL Championship season overlaps with the Gold Cup, many clubs have been without key players for the last three weeks. Phoenix was one of those clubs. Midfielder Kevon Lambert, who was a part of Jamaica’s pre-tournament friendly against the United States, has been away from Phoenix for the last five games, while attacker Junior Flemmings, who joined up with the Reggae Boyz closer to their first actual Gold Cup match, has missed Phoenix’s last four games.
While Lambert started in Jamaica’s warm-up friendly win over the United States, he only made one late-game substitute appearance in the Gold Cup. Flemmings on the other hand, had a much bigger role in the tournament: he played in all five of his team’s games, coming off the bench in the first match and starting the following four.
Jamaica Manager Theodore Whitmore deployed Flemmings as a central attacking midfielder and as a wide player over the course of the tournament. Though Flemmings’ ability to play multiple different positions helped him cement his a spot in the starting lineup, it ultimately took away from his time on the wing, which limited his attacking impact.
Despite the fact that Whitmore often used Flemmings out of position, it was fun to watch a Phoenix Rising player play an important role for his country in the biggest soccer tournament in North and Central America. Witnessing Flemmings create danger with his dribbling in the Gold Cup semifinal against the United States undoubtedly prompted some mixed emotions and confused loyalties for many Phoenix-based USMNT fans.
Setting those emotions aside, Flemmings’ – and Lambert’s – performances at the Gold Cup brought positive exposure to themselves and to Phoenix Rising. Today, in 2019, one live television mention from Fox’s John Strong is notable milestone.
A few years from now, it could be the norm. Whether or not they eventually make the jump to MLS, the future is bright in Phoenix (and not just because the sun shines here 296 days out of the year).
But that future is still a few years away. Right now, there are more pressing matters for Phoenix Rising to deal with: Rick Schantz and company have a winning-streak to maintain. With two key players coming back from the Gold Cup, many of you wanted to know how Schantz’s lineup would change for Phoenix’s next stretch of games.
After losing Flemmings and Lambert to the Gold Cup, Phoenix’s overall production hasn’t dipped. That is largely because Schantz has created continuity in his lineups: he started same front six (midfielders and forwards) in each of the last four games.
Joey Calistri has stepped into Flemmings’ left wing position to play up top next to Adam Jahn and Solomon Asante and James Musa has moved back into the starting lineup in Lambert’s absence, playing behind glue-guy José Aguinaga and Jon Bakero. With Calistri and Musa, Phoenix Rising’s win streak has doubled in size.
So if the level of play hasn’t dropped without the two Jamaicans in the first eleven, why change things? Sure, Flemmings and Lambert will eventually rejoin the starting group, but there is no need to rush either of them back.
Lambert hasn’t played a full 90 minutes since May 25th and almost certainly isn’t match-fit, so quickly forcing him into a starting midfield role could do more harm (to his body and to Phoenix Rising’s midfield solidity) than good. As mentioned, Flemmings did see more of the field for Jamaica, so he is match-fit. Still, with Calistri’s sound performances, he will likely have to start on the bench for a game or two and out-perform Calistri in training before jumping into the starting lineup again.
The age-old adage seems to apply here: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
– Rick Schantz (probably).
Depending on the makeup of my team’s roster, there are a couple of different ways that I would game-plan against Phoenix Rising. Phoenix thrive in open games where they can pass the ball through and around the opposition and get out in transition, so if I had a defensively-disciplined team, I might try to take some of the openness out of the game by sitting deep in a low 4-4-2 defensive block.
Teams often use a low defensive block against high-quality attacking teams because it restricts the space around the goal and makes it more difficult for the opposing team to knife their way into the box. Within the 4-4-2 block, I would put extra emphasis on marking playmakers Asante and Bakero, who both typically play on the right side, to force Phoenix to possess the ball on their slightly less dangerous left side.
It’s not a perfect system because leaving space on the left side of the field for Calistri, Aguinaga, and Dia to use is asking for trouble. Still, compressing their attacking space, winning the ball deep, and counter attacking into open space would frustrate Phoenix’s attacking style. Essentially, this is the “make life miserable for Phoenix Rising (and for the viewers)” approach.
If I was more confident in my team’s ability to possess under pressure and go almost toe-to-toe with Phoenix, I would try to attack the weak points of their defensive system. I touched on this in the last mailbag, but there is often a gap in Phoenix’s press between their high-pressing attackers and the back line, so putting one or two players in that space could cause some trouble.
Without Lambert in the lineup, I would also instruct my team to possess the ball and play through Phoenix’s midfield. Aguinaga can cover a decent amount of ground, but Bakero and Musa are not especially mobile midfielders. Moving a fullback, winger, or striker into midfield could overload their midfield and create some structural issues within Phoenix’s defensive shape.
If you have any questions for future mailbags, you can send them to me on Twitter @RisingTactics and I’ll make sure to answer them.