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.

FC Cincinnati are quaking in their boots. 

Okay that’s not likely, but still, after Phoenix Rising extended their league winning streak to nine games with a 1-0 away win against Rio Grande Valley, FC Cincinnati’s record ten game USL win streak is in jeopardy. This Phoenix team is just one victory on $1 Beer Night away from etching their names into the USL Championship’s record book.

However, getting consecutive victory number nine wasn’t easy: Phoenix weren’t able to just run over RGV. 

The playing conditions were tough, so while the heat likely didn’t phase Phoenix’s players, Houston’s humidity is difficult for any team to deal with. In addition to the weather, Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo loaned five players to RGV, their USL affiliate, for Saturday’s match.

Tyler Deric, Sam Junqua, Alejandro Fuenmayor, and Eric Bird started while Memo Rodriguez came off the bench at the start of the second half. Other than Rodriguez, none of those players play meaningful roles for the Dynamo, but they certainly boosted Rio Grande Valley’s overall talent level on Saturday. 

In terms of in-game tactical approaches, Phoenix Rising started the match owning the ball. From the opening kick, they extended their line of confrontation high up the field to try and force RGV to play the ball long and give up possession. Then, once they got the ball, Phoenix would possess, try to shift their opponent’s defensive block, and break into the attack.

Because Phoenix had the lion’s share of the ball throughout the 90 minutes, the matchup between Rio Grande Valley’s defensive block and Phoenix’s possession shape was a main key to the game. RGV defended in a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 block with one forward high to act as a counter attacking outlet. 

The midfield five provided both width and energy to RGV’s defensive shape. Each midfielder would step forward to put pressure on the ball when it was in their zone of the field, forcing Phoenix’s backline and midfielders to make quick decisions with the ball. In this image, you can see right-sided central midfielder Camilo Monroy stepping forward to apply pressure to Jon Bakero:

Rio Grande Valley Head Coach Gerson Echeverry struck a tactically-sound balance with his defensive block: it was compact enough to limit the space of Phoenix’s attacking players and aggressive enough to apply pressure to Phoenix’s buildup unit.

RGV’s block directly led to their most threatening attacking chance of the night. Left midfielder Kevin Rodriguez intercepted Bakero’s pass and played the ball forward to striker Carlos Small. James Musa deflected Rodriguez’s pass, but Small used his speed to get to the loose ball and fire a shot toward Zac Lubin’s goal.

ESPN+ kindly sends their apologies for the splotchy footage…

However, RGV’s block didn’t just lead to their best chance of the night. It led to Phoenix Rising’s best chance (and lone goal) as well.

In the buildup to the go-ahead goal, Phoenix Rising were trying to break through Rio Grande Valley’s defensive shape and move the ball forward into the attack. There are a number of different ways to break through a defensive block but one of the most popular methods used by possession-heavy teams is breaking through the opposition’s midfield line with passing. 

That is exactly what Joey Farrell did to start the goal sequence: he played a looping pass through RGV’s midfield line of five and into Bakero. With one pass, Farrell essentially eliminated six defensive players (the midfield five and striker) from the play.

After Farrell played the initial pass, Bakero, José Aguinaga, Solomon Asante, and Adam Jahn took care of the rest.

While Rio Grande Valley’s block was effective in moments on Saturday, Phoenix Rising proved that they are capable of breaking through a well-crafted defensive scheme. Austin Bold may use a similar setup on Friday to try and frustrate Phoenix and limit their ability to find their attackers in space. But if Phoenix is patient in possession, shifts the opposing defense with side-to-side ball movement, and breaks lines with their passing, they will be in position to tie FC Cincinnati’s record for most consecutive league wins.

The Final Third:

  • Solomon Asante’s production is just absurd. Since returning from Ghana in May, Asante has had at least one goal or assist in every single game that he has played. He leads the USL Championship in goals and assists and is tied for third in chances created. Phoenix Rising have a legitimate star on their hands.
  • Back from national team duty, Kevon Lambert wasn’t in the starting lineup against RGV, but wasted no time getting involved in Saturday’s game after coming off the bench. Literally seconds after subbing in for Jon Bakero, Lambert sprinted up the field to pressure RGV in possession and force a long ball. Then, he ran right back into midfield and tackled the ball away from an opponent. It looks like Lambert is going to be away with the Jamaican U-23’s for Olympic qualifying later this month, but it was nice to see him back in his Phoenix jersey, even just for a few minutes.
  • José Aguinaga may be better than any other Phoenix Rising player at getting out of tight spaces. On Saturday, he nutmegged RGV’s Kevin Rodriguez to get away from pressure and recycle possession. In my recent analysis of Aguinaga’s game, I wrote about his bravery on the ball and willingness to take risks. He definitely shows those things in this clip:

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

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