Photo courtesy of Grace Stufkosky.

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.

34 games. 78 points. An almost absurd amount of league and team records broken. After the final whistle blew on their 3-1 win over Oklahoma City Energy on Friday night, Phoenix Rising officially claimed the USL Regular Season Trophy as their own. 

It almost feels like those three fragments followed by a single complete sentence convey more meaning than 700 more words on tactics ever could, but hey, this is You’re here for the nitty-gritty details behind how Phoenix won their final regular season matchup. There are dozens of small elements that go into any victory, but I’ve highlighted three specific things that played a major role in Phoenix’s Rising’s latest win.

Lambert’s ball winning

After missing last week’s loss to the Real Monarchs with a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation, Kevon Lambert was back in the starting lineup against OKC. Rick Schantz’s decision to use Lambert as the defensive midfielder instead of James Musa paid huge dividends. 

With a midfield trio of Musa, José Aguianga, and Jon Bakero, Phoenix struggled to contain the Monarchs’ transition attacks last week. None of those midfielders are particularly quick, which means that when they are used together, Phoenix Rising’s backline is often left isolated in dangerous defensive situations. If Bakero and Aguinaga are beaten to a 50/50 ball while pressing, Musa typically isn’t fast enough to slide over to cover for them. 

Lambert is.

Though he prefers to play as a number eight (a midfielder who has some defensive responsibilities but also gets consistent chances to go forward into the attack), having Lambert at the base of Phoenix’s midfield to protect the backline and cover while his teammates press or counter-press is key to maintaining defensive solidity. Rick Schantz spoke to Lambert’s importance to his style of play after the game on Friday.

“This is our first year in this system, this style,” Schantz said. “The guys have really believed in it and I’m proud of them for that. Kev’s a big, big part of that.”

Lambert’s ability to cover ground, cut off passing angles, and harass opposing midfielders was on full display throughout the regular season finale. At times, opposing attackers literally looked scared to try to move past him in midfield.

With the playoffs coming up this weekend, having Lambert in excellent form is a huge boost for Phoenix Rising.

Excellent possession play

When Phoenix are playing their best, no team in the USL Championship uses possession to advance the ball into the attack as well as they do. Phoenix Rising were at their best on Friday night. From the first minute of the game, they moved the ball comfortably in possession, through Oklahoma City’s defensive lines, and forward to the feet of one of their playmaking attackers.

Two thirds of the way through the first half, Phoenix put together an impressive 10-pass sequence leading up to a golazo from Lambert. From Bakero’s back-heel, to Mustapha Dumbuya’s underlap that created a sliver of space for Solomon Asante to play the ball into the box, to Lambert’s late-arriving run to the top of the box, the goal was something to behold.

The Energy defended in a 4-2-3-1 but, as the above clip illustrates, they couldn’t find the balance between compressing space and applying pressure high up the field. If you can’t do at least one of those things well, Phoenix Rising are going to play right through you.

Whelan’s defending

I touched on it briefly in last week’s RTR but since arriving mid-season, Corey Whelan has been a huge asset for Phoenix. There are a couple of reasons for that. Offensively, he has enough skill to help Zac Lubin and AJ Cochran build from the back. Whelan isn’t perfect on the ball, but he pass or dribble through pressure when necessary. Defensively, many of the same adjectives that describe Lambert apply to Whelan as well. Though he is built differently than his midfield counterpart, Whelan reads the game well, covers ground at a high level, and shuts down attacks. 

Look at how patient he is in this sequence. Instead of sliding in to try and tackle the ball away from his man, Whelan stays upright, waits for the OKC attacker to take a loose touch, and then steps in to win the ball.

Especially because Cochran lacks elite mobility, having a player like Whelan who can use his own defensive ability to cover for his center back partner allows Schantz to keep Cochran and his offensive benefits in the lineup.

Though his contract status has not been released by the club, I’ll say this: if Whelan is not already signed for next season, I would be very surprised if Phoenix’s front office doesn’t make re-signing him one of their top offseason priorities. 

The Final Third:

  • Maybe the only major negative storyline to come out of Friday’s win was the continuation of Solomon Asante’s penalty kick struggles. After missing a penalty against OKC, Asante has now misfired on three consecutive attempts. Will he continue to act as Phoenix Rising’s primary penalty kick taker in the playoffs? “He and I will talk about it,” Schantz said. When asked about whether he and Solo will talk about who takes the next penalty kick, Adam Jahn said this: “Well Solo is captain, and it’s up to him. If he’s feeling it, then he’s going to take it. If he’s not, he’ll tell one of us to take it. But he’s earned it, and it’s his call. If he wants to keep taking them, let him keep taking them. He’ll put them in, don’t worry about it.” The next time that Phoenix are preparing to take a penalty, keep an eye out for an on-field discussion between Jahn and Asante.
  • Speaking of Jahn, Schantz was effusive in his praise of the striker after Friday’s game: “He was the best player on the field tonight by far. He really never lost the ball, helped us keep possession, two great finishes. Adam, he’s a big fan of Didier Drogba, and I know those are unbelievable shoes and he’ll never be able to fill them, but I think Didier would be proud to know he has a number nine that’s playing like Adam right now.” After scoring a brace, Jahn is another Phoenix Rising player who is in great form heading into the postseason.
  • To close this week’s column, I’d like to credit the club how they celebrated receiving the USL Regular Season Trophy. After celebrating with each other, Phoenix’s players, coaches, and other members of the team celebrated with the supporters in the south end. Witnessing the visible connection between Phoenix Rising’s players, coaches, front office, owners, and supporters on Friday was truly special. 

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

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