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.

Even before Joey Calistri scored a brace to help Phoenix Rising get out of New Mexico United’s Isotopes Park with a 2-2 draw, the team already had something to celebrate. Roughly thirty minutes into Phoenix’s game, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds beat Indy Eleven 3-0 in an Eastern Conference clash, ensuring that Phoenix would end the 2019 season with more points than any other team in the league.

Phoenix Rising are the USL Championship’s regular season champions.

“It’s a dream come true,” Rick Schantz told Owain Evans after Saturday’s match. “At 2-5-2, if you had said I’d be standing here with the USL Supporters’ Shield…I would have probably said you’re crazy. But these guys, there’s no quit in this bunch.”

Without getting into the debate of which accomplishment is more important – winning a playoff title or winning a regular season title – it’s impossible to deny that Phoenix Rising have achieved something truly impressive. Winning one game in professional soccer is hard enough, so winning 22 games over the course of a season is infinitely more difficult. Phoenix’s coaching staff, players, and front office have worked together to create sustained success, even when missing players to injuries and international breaks.

It feels like there can’t be anything left for this team to accomplish before the playoffs start in late October, but if they can earn six points in their final three games of the regular season, Phoenix Rising will break FC Cincinnati’s record (77) for most points in a single USL season.

Still, as Saturday’s game illustrated, it won’t be easy for Phoenix to break Cincinnati’s record. Opposing teams continue to defend deep against Phoenix Rising, drawing players forward, and then countering into open space in the attacking half. New Mexico followed that tactical checklist to near perfection, and for most of the game, it looked like they were going to cruise to a 2-0 home win.

By sitting deep, New Mexico compressed Phoenix’s attacking space. Schantz wants his team to drive into space, rotate off the ball, and take shots on goal, but with so many defenders back in and around the box, it becomes almost impossible to do any of those things.

Look at how deep New Mexico United’s backline is in this clip. They are willing to drop several yards inside their 18-yard box in order to shrink Phoenix’s attacking space. With so many bodies defending deep, New Mexico win the ball off of Junior Flemmings inside the box and start an attack of their own.

Over and over again Phoenix Rising pushed forward with all ten outfield players to try to break down their opponent’s über-low defensive block and over and over again New Mexico won the ball and started an attack of their own.

Without a true playmaker pulling the strings in central midfield, Phoenix struggled to create and finish chances. But one smart substitution from Schantz in the 62nd minute changed all of that. Down 2-0, Schantz subbed on Calistri for José Aguinaga, putting Calistri at right wing and sliding Solomon Asante into central midfield. Because he likes to dribble at defenders, the ball can stick to Asante’s feet, which means he isn’t an ideal candidate to play as a full-time central midfielder in Phoenix Rising’s system. However, Asante’s ability to control the ball in tight spaces and play well-weighted passes into the box make him an intriguing midfield option for late-game situations.

After Phoenix Rising’s 3-3 draw with New Mexico back in March, I asked Asante about what it’s like to transition from playing on the wing to playing in midfield over the course of a match.

“We’ve been practicing this on the training ground,” he said. “Sometimes I start on the right wing and then at the end of the training they bring me inside. I’m a very good passer so it was easy for me.”

Before Saturday, it had been a while since Asante had played in midfield for more than a handful of minutes, but especially without Jon Bakero in the lineup, adding a creative spark into midfield was a huge part of Phoenix Rising comeback. At the end of last week’s RTR, I actually wrote about wanting to see Asante in a more central role at the end of games to accommodate Jason Johnson:

“However, the next time that 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.”

While Johnson didn’t make the game day 18-man roster on Saturday – possibly due to a training injury – the principle is still the same. Asante added creativity to the midfield and Calistri brought more direct play to the right wing.

After the position change, it took just minutes for Asante to impact the game in the middle of the field. In the 64th minute, Asante received the ball, turned, and found Adam Jahn between New Mexico’s midfield and defensive lines. Moments later, Jahn played the ball across the face of goal to Amadou Dia for a great chance.

With Asante inside, New Mexico had to concentrate even harder on compressing central space, which allowed Phoenix to move the ball forward in wide areas. Calistri capitalized on some of that wide space on his first goal. He made a direct run behind a defender and hit the ball in the general vicinity of the net to cut Phoenix Rising’s deficit in half.

Playing with an all-out attacking lineup, Phoenix kept pushing for the equalizer and they eventually found it (through Calistri) in the 90th minute.

It wasn’t the prettiest match, but thanks to Schantz’s substitution, Asante’s playmaking ability, and Calistri’s finishing, Phoenix Rising salvaged a result on the road. If Phoenix is down by a goal or two in a game later this season, don’t be surprised to see Schantz move Asante inside again in an attempt to prompt another wild comeback.

The Final Third:

  • I understand the financial restrictions on certain ownership groups and markets within American professional soccer, but man, it’s tough watching soccer games in baseball stadiums. I can’t wait for the day when USL grows to the point where every team is playing in a mid-sized, soccer-specific stadium.
  • I’d like to give credit to New Mexico one more time: Troy Lesesne has given his team a defined tactical identity and the players have embraced it. They’ve been a thorn in Phoenix’s side throughout this entire season and if the two teams meet in the playoffs, it will be anyone’s game.
  • Phoenix Rising are the USL Championship’s regular season champions.

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

3 thoughts on “Rising Tactics Recap: Subs

  1. Shantz has been sticking with the 4-3-3 most of this season. Would a 4-2-3-1 formation work well when Bakero is out? Jahn up top with Flemmings, Asante, and JJ/Calistri behind. Lambert and Musa in front of the defense?

    1. The 4-2-3-1 is a valid option, but I think it’s more likely that we see that at the ends of games when Phoenix needs to push for a winner. Asante brings a lot of value on the right side of the attack dribbling at players and playing driven crosses into the box, so keeping him there when possible is ideal.

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