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.

For one of the first times all season, I was off the grid and unable to watch Phoenix Rising play live on Saturday. Later in the evening, when I finally saw the scoreline of Phoenix’s 5-3 victory in Providence Park against Portland Timbers 2, I didn’t blink twice or rub my eyes in disbelief. Scoring lots and lots of goals is just what Phoenix Rising do. This weekend’s victory over T2 was the third time that the team has scored five or more goals in a single game this year.

Even with two games still remaining, Phoenix has already blown past the USL’s single-season goals record (Reno’s 75 goal tally from 2017) and is in the process of extending their own record total (which is currently sitting at 85). To appreciate Phoenix Rising’s recent five-goal outburst and overall goal-scoring prowess, we’re going to break down each goal from Saturday’s win in tactical detail. With lots of goals to analyze, we’d better get started.

Goal #1, 4th minute:

Just minutes into the match, Phoenix was already threatening in the attacking half. In the fourth minute, those threats turned into real action. Taking a corner kick won by Junior Flemmings, Solomon Asante tried to find Joey Farrell at the near post. Portland Timbers 2 dealt with the cross, cleared the ball, and stepped higher up the field to reestablish their defensive line right at the edge of the box.

Asante picked up the loose ball and was quickly pressured by an opposing player. With only a split-second to make a decision with the ball, Asante spotted left back Kyle Bjornethun and used a one-touch pass to put his teammate in space on the left wing. Thanks to Asante’s clever ball, Bjornethun had plenty of time to play a low, hard cross just inside the six yard box for one of his teammates to finish.

Low crosses near the six yard box are notoriously difficult for defenses to deal with because goalkeepers and defenders have to communicate perfectly with each other to determine who is going to clear the danger. If that communication and subsequent defensive clearance isn’t spot-on, the attacking team is most likely going to have a high-quality scoring chance. That is exactly what happened on this goal. T2 couldn’t clear the danger and Kevon Lambert reaped the benefits at the back post to give Phoenix Rising a 1-0 lead.

Goal #2, 35th minute:

After Portland equalized off of a low cross of their own, Phoenix re-took the lead before halftime on a lovely end-to-end, nine pass possession sequence. There is something important to note before appreciating the crisp passing that allowed Phoenix Rising to move the ball up the field and eventually into the goal. Before the passing began, Lambert, Farrell, and Doueugui Mala formed a temporary back three, creating a three versus two advantage over T2’s front two. 

The defense could only cover two of Phoenix’s three outlet options, which left Mala open to receive a pass from goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski. Portland’s defensive shape couldn’t shift fast enough to pressure Mala and close the space in front of him, which allowed him to dribble forward and play the ball into midfield. Phoenix Rising then moved the ball through midfield and to Asante on the right wing, who played another low ball into the box for striker Ben Spencer to finish. 

This goal sequence validates the system that Rick Schantz has implemented this season (as if it wasn’t completely validated already). Smart positioning led to easy passes, which led to a concrete goal-scoring opportunity. 

Goal #3, 54th minute:

We saw a glimpse of midfield combination play in the second goal sequence, but it appears even more prominently in the buildup to Phoenix Rising’s third goal from Saturday night.  José Aguinaga, Joey Calistri, and Asante formed a triangle around two Portland Timbers 2 players and put on a one-touch passing clinic to move the ball forward.

With the ball in a pocket of space in front of the opposing backline, Aguinaga pulled off one of the best passes that any Phoenix player has completed this season. I’ve probably watched this pass 20 times at this point and it gets better every time: Aguinaga took a touch with his right foot before hitting a perfectly-weighted ball with his left foot that lands right in Flemmings’ path. Flemmings took two controlled touches and slotted the ball past the goalkeeper to double his team’s lead.

Goal #4, 70th minute:

Down to ten men after Adrián Diz’s red card, Portland struggled to contain Phoenix’s passing and off-ball movement. On this fourth goal, Mala collected the ball right at the midfield line and shifted the play to Bjornethun on the left side of the field. As Mala’s pass reached Bjornethun, Aguianga moved between two T2 midfielders.

Bjornethun centered the ball to Aguinaga, whose positioning allowed him to charge forward into space with little to no resistance from the opposing defense. Eventually, Aguinaga’s run forced three defenders to step forward, which created space for Spencer to receive the ball inside the box. Spencer made a bending run across the body of an opposing center back into the space that Aguianga created with his run and finished with a left-footed strike across the goal.

I would argue that the most impressive part of this sequence is not the actual goal but the recognition of open space that Aguniaga and Spencer both displayed in the buildup to it. Seeing and taking advantage of space in the attacking half is going to be key for Phoenix Rising when they inevitably face compact blocks in the postseason. 

Goal #5, 88th minute:

If Phoenix’s first four goals on Saturday night were punches, this fifth goal was the knockout blow. Only down by one late in the match, T2 pushed for an equalizer. However, when Portland pushed so many numbers high up the field, they left their defensive area exposed. 

In this sequence, Phoenix Rising won the ball in their goal box and largely thanks to Jon Bakero’s technical ability, played through Portland’s attempts at counter-pressing. Bakero received the ball and turned with his first touch, evaded pressure with his second touch, and then spotted Calistri making a run down the right sideline. He lofted the ball to Calistri, who cut inside and found Aguinaga for the final goal of the game.

I’m not sure there is another player on Phoenix Rising’s roster who could pull off the same clean first touch/turn/pass combination that Bakero did in the above sequence. You can see how calm he is when he received the ball, totally unfazed by pressure. Bakero is going to feel like a brand-new signing for the rest of this season.

The Final Third:

  • One of the most impressive things from Phoenix Rising’s 5-3 victory was the fact that Rick Schantz rotated the team and they still played the same aggressive, disciplined style as always. Schantz loves to talk about how his team is more than the sum of the eleven first-choice players and he backed up that talk over the weekend.
  • Saturday night marked a milestone for Phoenix’s season: it was their last road game of 2019. With two home matches coming up to end the regular season and home-field advantage already secured throughout the playoffs, Phoenix Rising will have the benefit of playing at Casino Arizona Field for the rest of the year. 
  • In those two remaining regular season home matches, Phoenix Rising only need three points to break FC Cincinnati’s record for points in a single USL season. If they play like they did against T2 against the Real Monarchs or the Oklahoma City Energy, that record will belong to Phoenix. 

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

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