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.
Down 2-0 in the 56th minute against Los Angeles Galaxy II, Phoenix Rising had their backs against the wall. Trying to get his team back in the game, Zac Lubin took a quick goal kick after an LA corner kick ended up out of bounds. If Lubin could get the ball upfield quickly before LA’s defensive line re-formed, Phoenix would have a chance to run towards the goal nearly unimpeded.
Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, Lubin’s goal kick sailed out of bounds. In that moment, losing by multiple goals on the road and watching a potential attacking chance wasted, Phoenix could have let hopelessness set in and ruin the rest of the game for them.
Instead, Solomon Asante started clapping.
Asante, who prepared to receive the ball from Lubin and run toward Los Angeles’ goal, turned and applauded his goalkeeper for attempting to play quickly. At that point in the game things were not going smoothly for Phoenix, but Asante kept his head up and inspired his teammates to do the same.
Make no mistake about it: Phoenix Rising’s players were frustrated. After the game, Rick Schantz pulled back the curtain on the mood inside the locker room at halftime and said that the “players were really frustrated, they were kind of upset with each other”. However, in that brief moment in the 56th minute, Asante embodied the opening and closing lines from Rudyard Kipling’s If: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…you’ll be a Man, my son!”
In the post-Didier Drogba era, Asante has emerged as the team’s true leader. He commands attention on and off the field.
“Solo, in the locker room, is the one guy who’s telling them to stop arguing and stop complaining and stop being upset with each other,” Schantz said after the game on Saturday. “He’s got experience, he’s a leader. When you think it’s the most difficult moments, the special players, they rise to the occasion. That’s what Solo seems to do pretty often for us.”
Facing real adversity against Los Dos, Asante was the player who calmed things down, helped his team refocus, and started Phoenix Rising’s comeback.
Just two minutes after visibly encouraging his team, Asante pounced on a poor pass in LA’s defensive third and dribbled around the goal keeper to get Phoenix on the board.
It wasn’t like Phoenix Rising had played especially poorly in the 57 minutes leading up to Asante’s goal. No, the multi-goal deficit that Phoenix found themselves in was largely due to two things: Los Dos’ game plan and Phoenix Rising’s individual mistakes.
LA’s defensive strategy was to limit Phoenix’s ability to play in central areas. Defending in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 block, Galaxy II closed off passing angles into central midfield and stepped to Phoenix Rising’s central players – the three midfielders and striker Adam Jahn – to make it difficult for their opponents to break through centrally.
In this sequence, Los Angeles Galaxy II’s midfield block have Phoenix’s advanced midfield options blocked off. James Musa tries to thread the needle, but his pass gets intercepted.
Still, LA didn’t completely eliminate Phoenix Rising’s ability to possess the ball and create danger. There were a number of instances throughout the first two thirds of the game where Phoenix moved the ball well, shifted the opposing defensive from side-to-side, and nearly took advantage of gaps in Los Angeles’ backline.
The key word there is “nearly”.
Phoenix looked slightly out of sync for large stretches of Saturday’s game. In this sequence, 45 seconds of patient, yet assertive possession are wasted by Kevon Lambert and Jose Aguinaga’s inability to connect in the final third:
In the postgame media availability, Schantz said that his team just wasn’t “sharp”. Later, Joey Farrell gave a little bit more detail.
“We came out a little lackadaisical,” Farrell said. “We were missing some passes offensively and defensively, we were losing some battles.”
Farrell hit the nail on the head. Offensively, Phoenix Rising set themselves up in the same way that they have for most of the season. Phoenix used the same attacking patterns and off-ball rotations that the coaching staff have been drilling them on over the course of the season but struggled to connect in key moments.
Defensively, it was clear to see that Phoenix was adjusting to a new combination of players along the backline. AJ Cochran, who started at center back instead of Doueugui Mala, had a handful of shaky defensive moments that contributed to Los Dos’ two goal lead.
Between some poor offensive connections and some sloppy defensive moments, it looked like Phoenix Rising’s winning streak was about to end. However, thanks to Asante’s leadership and a pair of significant substitutions from Schantz, the team started to come back.
Four minutes after Asante’s goal halved the deficit, Schantz brought Jon Bakero on for Musa. Bakero’s skill revived Phoenix’s attacking spirits: he started combining with his teammates and methodically moving the ball up the field. It was Bakero’s flick inside the box that created space for Junior Flemmings to score the equalizing goal in the 74th minute:
Four minutes after Phoenix tied the game, Schantz made another key move and subbed Joey Calistri in for Aguinaga. Calistri volleyed the game-winner into the back of the net in the 83rd minute, capping of an incredible comeback.
Though they weren’t at their best, Phoenix’s ability to use a different lineup, play from behind, and stay mentally strong will serve them well as the long USL Championship season continues.
“Championship teams final a way to win,” Schantz said after the final whistle.
The Final Third:
- Zac Lubin may be in the most impressive form that I’ve ever seen from a goalkeeper. After coming up with a number of big saves last week against Tulsa, Lubin outdid himself on Saturday. Acrobatic saves? Check. Purely reactionary saves? Check. Clutch saves to stop opposing counter attacks? Check. Lubin is doing it all right now.
- I mentioned it earlier, but for all of his passing ability, AJ Cochran struggled defensively against LAG II. He looked a bit flat-footed and had trouble clearing the ball. Cochran hadn’t played since June 29th against T2, so it’s fair to attribute some of his on-field clunkiness to rust. However, that rust will need to shake off quickly if Cochran wants to stay in the starting lineup.
- My biggest takeaway from Saturday’s game wasn’t Lubin’s performance in goal or Cochran’s defensive problems. It was that Jon Bakero proved – once and for all – that he is an essential piece of Phoenix’s starting lineup. With his overall technical skill, Bakero should be the second field player on Rick Schantz’s lineup card each game day, right after Solomon Asante.
Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Rising Tactics Recap! Check back later this week for more insight and analysis.