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.

This feels a little strange, doesn’t it? 

After four straight months of winning, Phoenix Rising’s win streak was finally broken by a 2-1 loss to Fresno FC on Saturday night. Hindsight is 20/20, but if we look back at the last few games of that streak, it’s fair to say that there have been warning signs for Phoenix. 

The team needed a dramatic free kick goal from Solomon Asante to lift the them over San Antonio FC on September 7th. Then a few days later on September 11th, Phoenix generated no shots on goal in the first half against the Las Vegas Lights and relied on a ruthless finish from Adam Jahn to propel them to victory. Last Saturday’s 4-1 win over Los Angeles Galaxy II was much more complete, but the on-field positives from that match did not carry over to this weekend’s game. 

Asante’s two missed penalty kicks certainly hurt the team’s ability to capture three points on the road, but regardless, it was Phoenix’s inability to create chances in open play that did the most harm. Just like the Las Vegas match from earlier this month, Phoenix Rising didn’t generate a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes of the game.

Why did Phoenix’s attack struggle on Saturday? Because Fresno stayed committed to their smart defensive game plan. Fresno head coach Adam Smith didn’t draw up anything fancy. Instead, he relied on a classic, tried and true 4-4-2 defensive block to frustrate Phoenix. 

The fact that the game was held at a baseball stadium on a relatively small playing surface is no excuse: New York City FC play free-flowing, possession soccer at Yankee Stadium all the time. Still, the pre-compressed field did allow Fresno to focus even more intently on blocking off specific areas of the field with their defensive shape.

Fresno allowed Phoenix to possess in their own half, but once the ball moved higher up the field, the home team quickly stepped to force a turnover or at the very least, force Phoenix to play backwards in order to maintain possession.

Here’s an example. Cochran dribbles the ball forward past the halfway line and finds Peter-Lee Vassell. Vassell slides to his left and passes the ball to Junior Flemmings. Immediately after receiving the ball, Flemmings is swarmed by four Fresno players. Now with no space in front of him, Flemmings has to pass the ball back to Vassell.

So much of what happened in the early part of that above sequence was good, but once Fresno stepped to the ball, it was over for Phoenix. 

Fresno maintained their defensive solidity even when Phoenix moved the ball quickly in transition. In this sequence, Mustapha Dumbuya (one of the fastest players on Phoenix Rising’s roster) is sprinting up the right side of the field. However, because Fresno quickly re-form their 4-4-2 defensive shape, Dumbuya’s speedy run doesn’t create much space. Fresno contain the ball and force Phoenix backwards yet again. 

While Fresno deserve credit for their defensive work, Phoenix Rising’s players were also partially to blame for their team’s inability to create chances for large stretches of the game. At times on Saturday, the players were out of sync, which made things even easier for Fresno’s defense. 

As you can see in this clip, unforced errors kill momentum for an offensive team trying to break down a tight defensive block. Cochran and Aguinaga can’t connect on the left side, which allows Fresno to collect the ball and transition from defense to attack.

Phoenix’s overall lack of sharpness continued into the second half. Players looked disconnected and the overall movement in the attacking half was far from the best that we’ve seen from Phoenix Rising so far this season. 

In this sequence, Corey Whelan carries the ball forward from his center back position and finds Aguinaga in a pocket of space. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Aguinaga and Dumbuya can’t get on the same page and the ball rolls out of bounds.

If Phoenix Rising and Fresno face each other in the Western Conference playoffs, expect Fresno to approach the game much like they did on Saturday. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Fresno is willing to work hard within a defensive block to thwart attacks and has the attacking talent necessary to punish an opposing team in transition. Phoenix won’t deviate from their general tactical principles if these two teams meet again, but they will want to adjust how they move the ball, create space, and connect in the attacking half. 

For now though, Phoenix Rising will be focused on preparing for their upcoming match against New Mexico United. The team has a chance to start another win streak – but this time, that streak could end with Phoenix holding the USL Championship trophy in November.

The Final Third:

  • Given Phoenix’s midfield depth, it’s oddly easy to forget (at least easy for me to forget) that Phoenix Rising are still without Jon Bakero. His calming presence on the ball and creative passing would have made a sizable impact on Saturday against Fresno. Getting Bakero back in time for the postseason will feel like a brand-new signing.
  • Rick Schantz didn’t end up bringing Jason Johnson off the bench on Saturday – which is understandable given the attackers that were already on the field – but next time Phoenix is trailing late in a game, I would be very interested in seeing Schantz shift Asante into a central role and send Johnson out to the right wing. I don’t know if it would work, but it certainly is a way to get your four best attackers on the field at the same time. As an opposing team, imagine having to stop Jahn, Asante, Flemmings, and Johnson at the same time. That’s what nightmares are made of.
  • Yes, the streak is broken, but a few years from now when we all look back on this season, everyone is going to remember this 20 game run. We’ve witnessed American soccer history.

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

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