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.

Sometimes it’s easy to watch a match and come away with one storyline that takes precedence over all the rest. Phoenix Rising’s 5-3 win over the Portland Timbers 2 last week was one of those matches. With so many goals scored, there was a clear opportunity to analyze how the team created and capitalized on their goal-scoring chances. 

Other times it’s not so easy to pinpoint one specific narrative because multiple competing stories arise over 90 minutes. Phoenix’s 2-1 loss on Saturday night to the Real Monarchs was definitely one of those matches. The game’s tactical storyline and its late drama both played large parts in deciding the match. Let’s walk through both narratives.

Tactical takeaways:

Like we’ve seen in so many games this season, Phoenix used their fluid 4-3-3 shape to control possession on Saturday, moving the ball forward into different vertical channels to try and penetrate the Real Monarchs’ defensive scheme. Defensively, the Monarchs sat back in a 4-4-2 block and made it difficult for Phoenix to play through them by compressing space in and around their box.

Despite not scoring until the 82nd minute, Phoenix Rising had legitimate chances throughout earlier parts of the match. In the 18th minute, Solomon Asante received the ball in the right “halfspace” (the vertical channel that sits halfway between the middle of the field and the right sideline), created a sliver of space for himself, and played a cross into Joey Calistri, who was making a run to the back post. Calistri’s shot hit off the woodwork, but the sequence typifies the chances that Phoenix’s attackers can create against a tight defense.

Most of Phoenix’s attacks, particularly in the first half, came from the right side of the field. Without Junior Flemmings on the left wing to provide a near-equal threat to Asante’s scoring ability on the right, Phoenix Rising relied on quick combination play on the right wing to break through the Monarchs’ block. 

Time and time again, Phoenix came close but were just barely unable to find the final ball or the final touch that would allow them to take an unobstructed shot on goal. This sequence, where Aguinaga and Asante can’t quite connect in the Real Monarchs’ box, is a good example of how narrowly Phoenix Rising missed out on some quality goal-scoring opportunities. 

While Saturday night’s loss has no bearing on the team’s postseason seeding, the game still told a tactical cautionary tale: winning the way Rick Schantz wants to win isn’t always easy. There are games – like last week’s 5-3 win over T2 – where Phoenix Rising can overwhelm opposing teams with quick passing, off-ball rotations, and sheer talent. Then there are games – like Saturday’s 2-1 defeat – where Phoenix push and push, but can’t quite break through using their preferred style of play. 

Still, even after a tough loss, don’t expect things to change anytime soon.

“We played a team that played with ten guys in their own penalty area. Just like Man City, I’m not going to change anything,” Schantz said after the game. “I’m not going to change the way that we play. Teams are going to do that (sit deep). It’s a sign of respect.”

The players aren’t concerned about the tactics, either. At this point in the season, they are all in on making Phoenix Rising’s aggressive, attacking style of play the best it can be.

“It’s just something that we need to work through. We have the ability on the field to play. We have the players who can break down defenses, whether it’s Solo [Asante] or Joey [Calistri] or Junior [Flemmings] on the dribble or combination play with our midfield,” goalscorer Ben Spencer said. “I think it’s something we can obviously improve on and continue to work on in training going into the playoffs, but it’s not something I don’t think that’s worrying any of us.”

With only one more regular season game before the playoffs start, watching how effectively Phoenix is able to break down a low block (and defend against opposing counter attacks after they have pushed so many numbers forward) on Friday against the Oklahoma City Energy will be key.

Late-game drama:

On top of trying to pick the tactical lock to the Real Monarchs’ defense, Phoenix Rising also had to endure some emotional highs and lows near the end of Saturday’s match. The drama started in the 73rd minute when the referee called for a penalty after Amadou Dia and Julián Vázquez clashed inside Phoenix’s box. Watching the game live, it was difficult to tell whether the contact warranted a penalty call or not. Even watching the footage back now, it’s still difficult to tell. 

Needless to say, Schantz took exception to the referee’s decision and defended his player to the media after the match.

“It wasn’t a pen. Not close,” Schantz said. “Our player got to the spot first. I think they may have both touched the ball at about the same time. Their guy went down easy.”

One minute after the penalty was called, Monarchs attacker Maikel Chang stepped up and slotted the penalty kick into the bottom right corner of the net to give his team a 1-0 lead. Down a goal late in the match, Phoenix was unwilling to bow out gracefully. In the 82nd minute, Mustapha Dumbuya dribbled forward into space and found Adam Jahn with a cross into the box. Jahn nodded the ball back to Spencer, who headed it into an open goal. 

With only a handful of minutes remaining, it appeared that the excitement had died down and that the game was poised to end in a draw. 

Not so.

After a scuffle between Konrad Plewa and Corey Whelan led to the two players being ejected from the game with red cards, both Phoenix Rising and the Real Monarchs were down to ten men. Finally, in the 93rd minute the Monarchs took advantage of a big mistake from Zac Lubin, who mishandled a cross, to re-take the lead right before the final whistle.

Obviously putting all of the blame for Saturday’s loss on outside circumstances isn’t justified, but Phoenix Rising should feel somewhat vindicated that they very nearly salvaged a result in the midst of some chaotic game management by the officiating crew. 

The Final Third:

  • Setting his red card aside, Corey Whelan played a fantastic game against the Real Monarchs. He looked confident with the ball at his feet and used his defensive mobility to shut down a number of counter attacks. Whelan’s ability to cover for a general lack of speed in the rest of Saturday’s lineup was a huge part of why Phoenix was able to keep the Monarchs off the board for so long.
  • Like Whelan, Mustapha Dumbuya had an excellent performance on Saturday. He created danger in the attack from his right back position, helped maintain proper spacing in possession by rotating into central midfield when necessary, and used his speed to win duels and cleanup loose ends in Phoenix’s defensive half. After a questionable start to the season, Dumbuya has become the rock of Phoenix Rising’s defensive unit.
  • Though they both played on Saturday, Jon Bakero and Jason Johnson are not at full fitness yet. Keep an eye on them against OKC on Friday to see how much Schantz uses them in the last week before the postseason kicks off.

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

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