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.

Mathematically, three points from one win is worth the exact same amount of points as three points from another win. Tactically, the same thing cannot be said. Some victories are better examples of a team’s stylistic preferences and on-field identity than others.

For example, Phoenix Rising’s 1-0 win over San Antonio on Saturday was a much different win than their 3-0 victory over the Colorado Springs Switchbacks the week before. Against Colorado Springs, Phoenix jumped out to a fast start, moved the ball efficiently in possession, and controlled of the game, particularly in the first half.

Those same adjectives cannot be used to describe Phoenix’s most recent win. Yes, beating San Antonio extended the winning streak to 18 consecutive wins and inched Phoenix Rising one step closer to the Supporters’ Shield, but it wasn’t pretty. Saturday night’s game was not a picturesque snapshot of the kind of soccer that Rick Schantz’s team is capable of playing.

San Antonio FC came into Casino Arizona Field with an offensive structure designed to thwart Phoenix Rising’s high press. San Antonio coach Darren Powell set up his team in a 3-5-2/3-6-1 attacking shape, not unlike the shape that El Paso Locomotive used against Phoenix in early August. With a number of players able to occupy space in the middle of the field at any given time, it was difficult for Phoenix to control central midfield.

There were a handful of times on Saturday when San Antonio efficiently moved through Phoenix Rising’s press. At the beginning of this sequence from the 14th minute, Phoenix’s press was doing a fairly good job of containing two opposing central midfielders. However, once San Antonio drew Phoenix’s pressure to one side of the field, they escaped by switching the ball over to Jack Barmby, who was in space on the other side. 

The above clip was a lovely example of beating a press with quick passing and quality positioning. Later in the first half, San Antonio showed another method of beating Phoenix Rising’s press. 

Instead of passing through the initial line of pressure, San Antonio center back Ebenezer Ackon dribbled the ball forward into midfield. As Ackon illustrated, the center back position is evolving into something more than a defensive stopper: now center backs are one of the key cogs in their team’s possession play. 

Phoenix Rising use their two center backs as their primary distributors. Schantz positions at least two of his central midfielders high up the field and relies on his center backs to play passes through the opposing team’s defensive lines and into those midfielders. But passing is just one way that center backs can contribute to the attack. Central defenders can also dribble the ball forward. 

While moving one center back forward can be a risky strategy because it often leaves a gap in the backline for opposing attackers to expose on the counter, ball-carrying center backs are a real asset in possession. If a defender can step past an opponent and break into midfield, the press is broken. That is exactly what happens in this clip. 

Ackon dribbles the ball past Asante, charges into space, and finds Wálter Restrepo on the wing. Restrepo then whips the ball into striker Frank López (who reminds me of Atlanta United’s Josef Martínez), who finishes switching the ball to the other side of the field.

The sequence ends with a San Antonio attacker in space on the right wing, all because a center back was brave enough to dribble the ball forward from the back.

A third prime example of San Antonio manipulating Phoenix’s defensive structure came midway through Saturday’s second half. In this clip, San Antonio overloaded Solomon Asante, José Aguinaga, and Austin Ledbetter on the far side of the field, moved the ball into midfield, and switched possession to the near side. 

Quick combination play leading to a diagonal switch is a pattern that Phoenix Rising use quite a bit, so watching another team use that same pattern to threaten in the attack must have felt somewhat foreign to Phoenix. Essentially, SAFC out Phoenix Rising-ed Phoenix Rising. 

While they did have several impressive moments of composure and skill in possession, San Antonio didn’t dominate the game. Though I haven’t been able to look at the expected goals numbers from Saturday night, a draw seems like it would have been a fair result. But sometimes that’s not the way soccer works. Phoenix Rising didn’t put together a particularly complete performance, but they still walked off the field with three points.

The Final Third:

  • The most unfortunate thing to come out of Saturday’s win over San Antonio FC was Jon Bakero’s injury. Bakero went down late in the first half and eventually left the game in the 43rd minute with a knee injury. This is what Rick Schantz said when asked about Bakero after the game: “Right now it’s just a precaution, we’ve got him in a brace. Felt like his knee was a little sore on the medial side. He’ll have a scan tomorrow [Sunday] and we’ll find out more then.” Sunday has come and gone and there has been no update from the club on the severity of Bakero’s injury. Still, it’s fair to expect some more information on the injury to come out after Phoenix Rising’s training session on Tuesday. UPDATE: Since the time of publishing, Phoenix Rising released a statement, saying that Bakero is “day-to-day” and is listed as “questionable” for this week’s games.
  • Jason Johnson is back. Johnson didn’t have any significant highlight plays in his 20-plus minute appearance on Saturday, but nonetheless, it was good to see him back out on the field for Phoenix Rising. Because he has the ability to play anywhere across the frontline, Johnson will likely be Schantz’s go-to attacking substitute throughout the rest of the regular season and postseason. 
  • At this point, what else can you say about Solomon Asante? “We’ve just got to thank him,” Corey Whelan said of Asante after the game. Though the Ghanaian didn’t play his best on Saturday, he stepped up and delivered a game-winning free kick goal in the closing minutes of the match. That is Asante in a nutshell.

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

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