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.
It’s been more than 24 hours since AJ Cochran’s penalty kick hit the back of the net at Casino Arizona Field to win the first penalty shootout in club history and send Phoenix Rising through to the next round of the USL Championship playoffs, but heart rates around the valley may still be elevated.
Welcome back to playoff soccer, everyone. All of the consistent excellence that Phoenix displayed throughout the regular season is irrelevant now. All of the four, five, and six goal wins are worthless. All of the records are in the past. Now, it’s all about winning and moving on to the next round.
“It’s survive and advance,” Rick Schantz told the media after Saturday night’s penalty shootout win over Austin Bold. “Nobody is a favorite, nobody is the best team. All that stuff is gone.”
Phoenix Rising’s 120 minutes of scoreless soccer against Austin Bold is a perfect illustration of the playoffs as soccer’s great equalizer. Phoenix finished the regular season as the top seed in the Western Conference with 78 points, while Austin ended the year as the number eight seed in the West with 48 points. There should have been, on paper, an observable disparity between the two teams playing under the lights in Scottsdale on Saturday, but there wasn’t.
Austin Bold came to play.
From the start of the match, Austin manager Marcelo Serrano’s game plan frustrated Phoenix’s possession play. Starting at the front of their defensive shape, Bold limited Zac Lubin and the rest of the defense’s ability to play out from the back and get into a passing rhythm. Because of the low camera angle on the broadcast, it’s not possible to find a suitable visual example of Austin’s tight marking on goal kicks, so you will have to take Lubin’s word for it.
“I think they did a good job of stopping us from playing out of the back and keeping some extra possession which is what we like to do,” the goalkeeper said.
Lubin, putting on his invisible analyst hat after the match, did an excellent job of detailing the next key part of Austin Bold’s tactical defensive scheme.
“Once we broke that [pressure on goal kicks] or I hit it long, they sat in and forced us to play around the outside,” he continued. “They made it very tough to play inside and through the middle and get really clear chances on goal.”
Austin applied extreme pressure to Phoenix Rising’s midfield, denying passes that normally would be open against a more lax defense. While they weren’t using a strict man-marking scheme, Serrano’s team placed a heavy emphasis on stepping to an opponent and tracking them in certain areas of the field. Think of it like zonal man-marking, which sounds like a contradiction, but really isn’t. Say you’re defending as the right central midfielder in a 4-4-2 block. Zonal man marking requires you to be responsible for the right half of central midfield while also aggressively tracking players who come through your zone.
Outside of André Lima and Sonny Guadarrama, Austin Bold’s front two, Austin’s other eight players outfield players made it their mission to eliminate Phoenix Rising’s space in central midfield. Here’s an example. Look at how tightly marked Kevon Lambert, Jon Bakero, and José Aguianga are in this clip:
By the time Lambert received the ball from Amadou Dia’s throw-in, he was already under pressure. Bakero tried to free himself from his marker by faking backwards before moving up the field, but his movement was too slow to give Lambert a passing option. Lambert’s pass rolled tamely to Ema Twumasi, giving Austin the chance to start an attacking sequence of their own.
From clips like the one above, it’s easy to see why Phoenix Rising’s passing accuracy on Saturday (78%) was the worst since their 2-1 loss to Fresno (75%) back on September 21st. Even when Phoenix managed to move the ball forward into the attacking half, either through a long pass or through clever off-ball movement that pulled the opposition’s defensive shape apart, Austin sat deep, packed numbers in and around their box, and dared Phoenix to break them down.
We’ve seen teams sit deep over and over (and over) again this season and it’s not going to stop in the playoffs. Defending in an extremely low block is a very effective way of making life difficult for possession teams. With only four shots on target in regulation and extra time combined, it’s safe to say that Phoenix Rising struggled to create consistent chances against their opponent’s block.
And yet it didn’t matter. Phoenix kept a clean sheet, though there were several times where Austin Bold were within inches of scoring, and took the game into penalty kicks. It wasn’t pretty, but in the playoffs, you don’t get bonus points for pretty victories.
It’s all about surviving and advancing.
The Final Third:
- We’re still waiting for an update on Mustapha Dumbuya’s availability (or lack thereof) for Phoenix Rising’s next game against the Real Monarchs on Friday. Dumbuya went down with an injury midway through Saturday’s second half and had to be replaced by Joey Farrell. If Dumbuya isn’t ready to play against the Monarchs, expect to see Farrell start and Corey Whelan to slide over to play right back. Whelan doesn’t have Dumbuya’s attacking energy, but he has played the position before and is comfortable on the ball and defending in wide areas.
- Let’s be honest: we all spent at least a little time this past week thinking about whether or not Solomon Asante would take a penalty kick for Phoenix against Austin should the situation arise. He’d missed three penalties in a row, but as the captain, Asante still had a right to claim a shot from the spot. Near the end of extra time, Asante and Rick Schantz had a conversation and decided to bring the Ghanaian off the field before the penalty shootout. Would Phoenix have still won the shootout if Asante had been one of the penalty kick takers? Who knows. What we do know is that Asante was selfless enough to eliminate any potential distraction that his presence could have produced at the end of the match. Schantz said it best: “I can’t say enough good things about this kid. He’s had some rough times lately, but that’s what captains do, they think about the team first.”
- As mentioned at the end of the body of this column, Phoenix Rising must be prepared to face another low block against the Real Monarchs (and in future playoff games should they advance). AJ Cochran touched on it after the match: “Yeah, I think [teams will sit deep], especially after watching this game. But we’re going to get better, we’ve got a whole week to work on that and continue to build.” We’ll see how well Phoenix’s training and film sessions this week prepare them to break through the Monarchs defensive shape.
Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Rising Tactics Recap! Check back next week for more insight and analysis.