Depth is an absolutely crucial part of building a successful team. With injuries to Jason Johnson, Alessandro Riggi, and others, losing Kevon Lambert and Junior Flemmings for a month during the Gold Cup, and missing Jon Bakero and Solomon Asante for stretches earlier in the season, Phoenix Rising’s depth has proven to be extremely important to their season so far.
Now with the signing of Corey Whelan from Liverpool, the rich get richer and the depth gets deeper.
Though he never made an appearance for Liverpool in any meaningful competition, Whelan amassed a large amount of professional experience during his time in England. Over the past two seasons, he played for Liverpool’s U-23 team in the Premier League 2 (a developmental league made up entirely of U-23 teams) and was loaned out to two different League Two teams (the fourth division of English football), Yeovil Town and Crewe Alexandra.
Positionally, Whelan can play in a number of different spots across the field. He spent most of the last two seasons playing as a right back in a back four, but he also saw time at center back and has played defensive midfield in the past. His versatility gives Phoenix Rising depth at multiple different positions, though judging by what Rick Schantz has told me and others, it appears that the coaching staff primarily plan to use Whelan as another option at center back.
After reviewing film from the past two seasons, it is clear that Whelan’s skillset fits Phoenix’s style of play. He is comfortable on the ball and capable of dribbling forward into space from the center back position and finding his attacking teammates higher up the field. In this clip, Whelan, number 6, moves the ball forward with dribbling and a well-weighted pass into midfield:
If an opposing defense leave green grass in front of him, Whelan will attack into it. The end result of this next sequence is nothing special, but the fact that Whelan takes advantage of the open space in front of him and plays a smart pass out wide because the opposition blocked off his middle passing options displays his comfort on the ball and quality decision making:
If Asante is the wide player receiving the ball in the above clip, the end result of the sequence could be something much more dangerous.
Of all of the passes I watched Whelan make (and I watched a lot of them), this next one might be my favorite. He receives the ball under pressure but does not get flustered. He keeps his head up and calmly plays the ball onto his central midfielder’s dominant foot. That one simple pass allowed Liverpool’s U-23’s to escape pressure and move the ball through the heart of the opposing defense.
Whelan’s passing ability aligns perfectly with the line-breaking passes that Schantz likes to see from his center backs. Remember that line-breaking pass from Joey Farrell that led to Phoenix Rising’s go-ahead goal against Rio Grande Valley last week? If you don’t, I wrote about it in the most recent RTR, but if you do, you’ll recall that it looks a lot like this pass from Whelan:
He isn’t perfect on the ball, but based on what I’ve seen, Whelan looks like the second best ball-playing center back on Phoenix Rising’s roster, behind AJ Cochran, but ahead of Joey Farrell and Doueugui Mala.
Phoenix’s newest signing doesn’t just bring value in possession; he can also impact the game defensively. Because he has experience defending in wide areas due to his time playing as a right back, Whelan is a capable 1v1 defender almost anywhere along the backline. If needed, he will likely be able to slide over from center back and cover for Mustapha Dumbuya. Whelan isn’t overly mobile, but he has enough quickness to stay with opposing attackers and enough patience not to lunge in to tackles too early:
When defending in a more central area of the field, Whelan can step out to pressure an opposing striker and muscle him off the ball. That is exactly what happens in this clip: Whelan steps, stays patient, and takes the ball from his opponent.
Until his visa process is finalized and he starts training with the rest of the team here in Phoenix, it is difficult to predict how much playing time Whelan will get during the rest of the season, but it certainly looks like he is capable of stepping in and making a real impact on both sides of the ball from the right center back position in Schantz’s 4-3-3 formation.