Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.
Because the biggest storyline surrounding Phoenix Rising right now is their record-breaking 12 game league win streak, lots of little snippets end up slipping through the cracks. Well today, I’m here to stand under the cracks and shine a light on the small, but nonetheless important, tidbits that aren’t getting much attention. Without further ado, here are eight nuggets from Tuesday’s training session.
Nugget #1: I spoke with both of the players that Rick Schantz added back into the starting lineup against Los Angeles Galaxy II. Kevon Lambert, who started over Jon Bakero, and AJ Cochran, who started over Doueugui Mala, were both visibly and verbally appreciative of their opportunity to get back into the first group.
“It felt great to get back in there with the guys,” Cochran said. “Obviously upset that we gave up the two goals, but our team showed great resilience and came back from two down and scored three in the second half to win the game. But it’s always nice to be back out there with the guys.”
Lambert echoed Cochran’s general message.
“It was really good to be back in the starting lineup for the first game back,” the midfielder said. “I think I helped the team a lot and I think I did what the coaches wanted me to do.”
Why change the lineup in the first place? To reward Cochran. So far this season, Schantz has repeatedly mentioned the importance of rewarding the players who have been performing the best and working the hardest in training. In Cochran’s case, the allure of re-inserting his passing ability into Phoenix’s attacking system was too tempting a proposition for the coaching staff to pass up.
According to Schantz, Lambert’s inclusion in the starting lineup was more about James Musa’s recent form. Without Bakero in the lineup, Musa would have more license to act as a playmaker in Phoenix’s midfield. However, having Lambert and Musa in the same midfield may not have produced the ideal attacking result that Phoenix Rising were looking for.
“It was interesting with James and Kevon on the field at the same time, I felt like we were a little bit more cautious in our approach going forward,” Schantz said.
Regardless of whether the lineup changes boosted the team’s overall effectiveness, rotating the starting eleven is still important, even during a long win streak. Especially during a long win streak. If players’ efforts in training aren’t rewarded on game-day, there is no incentive to continue to push and improve in training during the week.
Nugget #2: There were lots of people, myself included, who were critical of Cochran’s defensive performance against LA. He struggled to clear the ball a few times and looked a bit flat-footed at times.
“It wasn’t my best defensive performance,” Cochran said. Later he added, “If I’m back in the starting eleven, then I’m just going to have to do better on the defensive side of the ball.”
But Schantz, both defending his player and speaking some truth, didn’t attribute either of Los Angeles’ goals to any defensive issues from Cochran.
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault on the first goal. He [Cochran] went up for a header, the ball fell down to the guy’s foot. That’s not AJ’s fault.” Later talking about the second goal, Schantz said: “James Musa passed it right to their winger and we were in a 3 on 2 situation and I thought he [Cochran] did a great job to get across [to protect the goal]. I looked at the film and his arm was away from his body so it’s a pen. But he was there, he blocked the shot. I’m not putting anything on AJ.”
My understanding is that while Phoenix Rising’s coaches are aware of Cochran’s defensive limitations, they are eager to keep his aggressive passing in the lineup.
Nugget #3: We’ve all spent time speculating about where Lambert should play in Phoenix Rising’s midfield, haven’t we? No? It’s just me? Well regardless, I asked Lambert about his take on the whole “Where Should Kevon Play?” question.
“I really don’t know where I will play for the rest of the year, but I prefer to play as a number 8 because I like to go box-to-box,” Lambert said. “I like to attack, and I like to defend also, and I also like to grab a few goals. If you’re playing closer to the goal, that’s more chance of you scoring. I don’t really mind anywhere, but I prefer playing as a number 8.“
There you have it folks. He prefers to play as a number 8, which is basically the tweener position in midfield. It’s not a strictly defensive position but it’s also not an exclusively attacking one either.
Lambert’s ability to cover ground makes him a perfect fit to play as a box-to-box midfielder, wreaking havoc all over the field. Still, if he wants to become a more complete number 8, Lambert will need to add some more creativity to his game. A lack of attacking creativity is the biggest thing stopping him from becoming the next Mark-Anthony Kaye.
Nugget #4: Kevon Lambert’s first name is not pronounced “Kevawn”. It’s pronounced “Kevin”. If you ever meet him on the street, a simple “Kev” will do.
Nugget #5: Tuesday was Corey Whelan’s first day training with Phoenix Rising. While the coaching staff had already watched film on Whelan before signing him in July, watching a player participate in a live training session opens your eyes to new things. I watched a lot of film on Whelan as well and came away from his first training session in Phoenix generally impressed. He wasn’t a full participant, but he did participate in the majority of the session.
Whelan, who can play a number of different positions, played in central midfield during training. He made quick decisions, was surprisingly clever on the ball, and looked generally comfortable combining with his teammates. I asked Schantz for his first in-person impression of Whelan:
“Very good player,” Schantz said. “Great feet. Very comfortable in tight spaces. You can see that he was a central midfielder, he’s a right back, he’s a right center back, he can do it all. Quicker than I thought. I was very surprised a couple times he ran down a few balls that I didn’t know he’d get to.”
Tuesday’s grey skies undoubtedly helped Whelan adapt to his new environment, but even when the sun starts to shine, early signs point to Whelan fitting in well here in Phoenix.
Nugget #6: After Lambert and Cochran’s inclusion in the starting lineup, the biggest roster news from Saturday’s win against Los Dos was Ben Spencer’s absence from the team. It caught many people off-guard, including the broadcast team. Instead of bussing to LA with Phoenix, Spencer flew to Madison, Wisconsin with FC Tucson to start against Forward Madison in a USL League One match.
FC Tucson forward Jordan Jones replaced Spencer on Phoenix Rising’s game-day roster. For Spencer, dropping down to play with Tucson was about getting some playing time and staying match-sharp.
“Ben [Spencer] had come to me and said ‘Coach, I love this team to death, but Adam Jahn is a pretty consistent player right now and can I get some minutes?’” Schantz recounted. “Which is good because he said ‘I want to be ready if I’m called upon. If something happens to Adam, I want to be ready to play.'”
Jones almost did more than fill Spencer’s seat on the bench. He was one Joey Calistri volley away from getting subbed into Saturday’s game.
“I told Jordan that if we didn’t get that third goal, he was actually probably about 30 seconds away from getting called into a 4-4-2,” Schantz said. “We didn’t just bring him for posterity.”
Spencer’s start against Madison coupled with Jones’ inclusion on the game-day roster is just the latest example of Phoenix Rising making good use of their USL League One affiliate.
Nugget #7: I don’t think I talk enough about Solomon Asante. In fact, I’m not sure anyone other than Schantz talks enough about Asante. Schantz’s eyes light up when he gets a chance to mention “Solo” to the media. You can see in his face just how much he values Asante’s contributions to the club and he certainly doesn’t mince words when talking about his star player.
“Look, our team starts and ends with Solo Asante,” Schantz said after training. “He’s the best player I’ve ever coached. I coached Didier [Drogba] at the tail end of his career, but Solo, as far as consistency and work-rate and attitude, he’s right there at the top.”
This season, Asante has stepped in and almost seamlessly taken the reigns from Drogba. There are few players in the entire world that can say that they’ve taken over from Drogba and lived up to his standards, but Asante can. He sets the expectations for his teammates. He is Phoenix Rising’s leader. Oh, and he had a filthy nutmeg on Joey Farrell midway through Tuesday’s training session.
Nugget #8: Regardless of whether Phoenix Rising makes it into Major League Soccer as a future expansion club, it’s pretty clear that there are players on the roster who could successfully make the leap from USL up to MLS.
“I feel like this team, when we’re clicking on all cylinders and we’re playing at our best, we have – I feel like – 10 or 11 guys that could play in MLS. Easily. And I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years, if we see a lot of them there,” Schantz said in response to a question about Jon Bakero spending 2019 with Phoenix.
I’m not going to speculate on which guys make up that double-digit estimate, but I will say this: Schantz isn’t pulling that figure out of thin air. If, at the very least, we don’t see a handful of current Phoenix Rising players on MLS rosters next year, I’ll be very surprised.