Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.

Teams around the USL Championship are intent on making life as difficult for Phoenix Rising’s attack as possible. When faced with the choice between pressing Phoenix and leaving open space in key areas of the field or using a deeper, more compact defensive block to try and limit Phoenix’s ability to create danger in the final third, most teams are choosing to sit deep.

In the last three weeks alone, Rio Grande Valley and the Tulsa Roughnecks chose to sit in a tight defensive block and compress the space in their own halves. RGV defended in a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 and Tulsa defended in a 4-4-2 that became a 4-4-1 after Fredlin Mompremier was sent off at the end of the first half. Though Phoenix won both of those games 1-0, the team struggled to move the ball forward through the opposing defense and into the attack.

Still, after Saturday’s narrow victory against Tulsa, Rick Schantz wasn’t concerned. He has his finger on the problem: Phoenix Rising often didn’t rotate the ball quickly enough to force Tulsa to shift their compact defensive shape.

“I felt like against Tulsa we played too many square passes across the back. It was too slow moving it side to side, there were no penetrating passes,” Schantz said after training on Tuesday.

It sounds strange, but Phoenix’s attack only goes as far as its central defenders can take it. If the center backs aren’t rotating the ball quickly enough from side-to-side, the opposition can sit back, relax, and as a former coach of mine used to say, “eat some chips”.

“The center back pairing has been good, but it’s dropped off a little bit in our quality of play,” Schantz said. “Not having AJ [Cochran] on the field, for me, is a challenge because he’s such a good passer of the ball. But [Doueugui] Mala’s been competitive and Joey’s [Farrell] been competitive and when the pressure was there and we needed to defend, we had the right guys on the field.”

As Schantz mentioned, Joey Farrell and Doueugui Mala have been excellent defensively. Farrell has even developed into a well-above average passer. However, neither Farrell nor Mala is AJ Cochran.

Cochran is Phoenix’s best passing center back and he is also the only left-footed center back on the roster. If a gap is open, he can break lines and play the ball forward into one of his attacking teammates (like in the above clip). If a gap isn’t open, Cochran can move the ball quickly to the opposite side of the field to shift the opposing defense.

When Mala plays on the left side of central defense, he is forced to either use his weak foot to pass the ball forward into the attack or contort his body shape and hit passes at an awkward angle with his right foot.

Whether Cochran returns to the starting lineup this Saturday against Los Dos or not, Schantz is not concerned about his attacking system’s ability to break down a compact defense. He attributed some of his team’s recent ball movement struggles to nerves. After all, breaking records is a high-pressure task.

“I think the streak was bad for us in a sense, because guys started to get nervous about mistakes. Nobody wanted to make the mistake that led to the goal that might lead to the loss,” Schantz said. “When we started getting close, thanks to the media and social media and the owners and everybody telling our guys how great they are, that they’re going to win 10 or 11 in a row, I think they got a bit conservative in their approach,” he added later.

Now that Phoenix Rising have broken FC Cincinnati’s record, they should be able to get back to the aggressive style of play that helped them start their winning streak in the first place. It’s almost impossible to break down compact defenses without pushing lots of numbers forward and playing aggressive, risky soccer.

Schantz almost welcomes the challenge of opposing teams defending in a low block.

“The deeper teams sit against us, the more they allow us to have the ball and for us to move it side-to-side, to penetrate, for guys to be in 1v1 situations. So if teams want to sit back and just try to counter against us, we’re fine. We can send more numbers forward and we’ll take the risk,” Schantz said.

Phoenix Rising’s identity is based on owning the ball, opening gaps in an opposing defensive block, and running right through those gaps on the way to goal. Though it won’t always be pretty, that identity is not likely to change any time soon.

“Early in the season, I doubted a little bit what we were doing and I admitted that to the team,” Schantz said. “I rolled up my sleeves right after we lost at Austin [in April], I said, ‘No more. We’re going to play our way.’ I get chills when I talk about it, because the team all came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Thank God’. They didn’t want us to change, they wanted us to go after it.”

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