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.

Already down two goals just ten minutes into Saturday evening’s game, Colorado Springs Switchbacks’ Interim Head Coach Wolde Harris was visibly frustrated. The broadcast showed Harris attempting to communicate with his team during a dead-ball situation, before ultimately letting his arms fall to his sides in defeat.

Frankly, who could blame Harris for his body language on the sideline? Unlike many games earlier in the season when Phoenix Rising didn’t begin with the proper intensity, Phoenix got out to a hot start against Colorado Springs on Saturday.

Not wanting to sit through another round of late-game heroics like on Tuesday against Tacoma, Rick Schantz challenged his team to start quickly and get on the scoreboard early. The team clearly responded. 

Phoenix took control of the game right from the start and scored two goals in the first eight minutes, denying the Switchbacks the chance to use altitude and their home-field advantage to get a result.

“I thought that first half was some of the best football I’ve seen in USL in a long, long time,” Schantz told Owain Evans on Saturday. (You should follow Owain on Twitter and read his work.)

What was so great about Phoenix’s on-field work? The team played as a confident unit. They moved the ball quickly in possession, created overloads with clever positioning, and consistently passed the ball between opposing defensive lines.

It’s not a coincidence that Phoenix Rising played confident, aggressive soccer on Saturday. The players are comfortable executing the patterns that the coaching staff has implemented into their style of play and that comfort breeds confidence.

There were two nearly identical plays in the first half that illustrated just how dangerous Phoenix can be in possession when they are operating on all cylinders. Both involved overloading the right side of the field with seven players, drawing Colorado Springs’ defense out, and playing a diagonal ball to Junior Flemmings on the weak side.

Here’s the first sequence:

Corey Whelan, Austin Ledbetter, and Solomon Asante combined on the right side of the field before passing the ball to Kevon Lambert. As soon as Lambert received the ball, he knew that the open space was on the far side of the field, so he passed the ball out to Flemmings on the left wing. Isolated on the left, Flemmings had the ability to drive at the defense and create danger in the attacking half.

Here’s the second sequence:

Another combination on the right side of the field opened up space for Lambert to switch the ball over to Flemmings. Flemmings made some magic happen on the wing, cut inside, and found José Aguinaga between the lines.

Two plays, less than eight minutes apart, with almost identical buildup and results. It’s not easy to achieve that level of consistency. However, because Phoenix Rising rely on specific patterns in possession to create gaps in the opposing defense, they can consistently create these dangerous attacking moments.

Despite the talent gap between Colorado Springs and Phoenix, the Switchbacks probably should have been better prepared to stop the two above plays. Why? Because a thorough film analysis of Phoenix shows that they have used the same “overload the right side before switching possession over to the left side“ sequence in the past.

It led directly to a James Musa goal six weeks ago against Austin Bold:

Still, even if Colorado Springs had game-planned to stop Flemmings from receiving the ball in space on the left side, they would have been met with another pattern of play that would have given them an equal amount of trouble.

Trying to stop a well-drilled possession team like Phoenix Rising is a lot like trying to plug a leak in a boat. As soon as you cover one leak, another one springs open somewhere else on the boat. If you successfully stop one element of Phoenix’s attack, you then leave space for another part of the attack to hurt you.

San Antonio is going to have their hands full trying to slow down that attack at Casino Arizona Field on Saturday. If SAFC isn’t careful, their head coach Darren Powell could end up mirroring Harris’ body language on the sideline.

The Final Third:

  • Corey Whelan wasn’t perfect in his Phoenix Rising debut, but he looked comfortable playing as a center back in Phoenix’s aggressive system. The coaching staff and front office absolutely deserve credit for the way they’ve integrated Whelan into the team, slowly bringing him up to speed. First, he trained with Phoenix for three weeks to get back to match-fitness. Then, last week, he went down to play a match for FC Tucson to get a taste of American professional soccer and of the organization’s preferred style of play. Only after completing both of those steps was Whelan given game time for Phoenix Rising. It’s worth applauding Phoenix Rising for exercising patience with their newest permanent signing.
  • Speaking of FC Tucson, Firebird Soccer broke the news earlier this week that Devin Vega is no longer a part of Phoenix Rising/FC Tucson. It’s unfortunate that he was unable to establish himself here in Arizona, but Vega is an extremely talented young player, so it’s possible that he lands with another team in the near future. Still, despite his uncertain club situation, Vega was called up to the Puerto Rican national team for their upcoming pre-Concacaf Nations League friendlies.
  • 17. Straight. Wins.

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

2 thoughts on “Rising Tactics Recap: Control

  1. How do you see Risings backline lining up with Dumbuya called up to his national team? Will we see Whalen on the starting xi? Or should we expect Schantz to mix it up a bit?

    1. As I see it, there are two possibilities for that right back spot while Dumbuya is away. First, Austin Ledbetter could start again at right back on Saturday with any combination of Farrell/Whelan/Mala/Cochran playing as the two center backs next to him. Second, Whelan could slide out to right back. From what I’ve seen in training, Whelan has typically been playing in central positions, but he is fully capable of playing right back as well. Which of those two possibilities will happen? Only time will tell.

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