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.

As realization set in after the final whistle, a sort of somber quiet hung over Casino Arizona Field. There was a debilitating sense of emptiness, the kind you feel in the pit of your stomach. Zac Lubin buckled to the ground near his goal on the north end. Many of Phoenix Rising’s other players and coaches had tears in their eyes. Sections of the home fans were visibly stunned. In the concourse after the game, several Phoenix fans mentioned that they didn’t want to leave. 

Leaving would make it all real.

But it was real. Phoenix Rising’s season had just come to an end: playing for a spot in the USL Championship’s Western Conference Final, Phoenix fell 2-1 at the hands of the Real Monarchs. 

Coming off of a 6-2 win over Orange County in the first round of the USL Championship playoffs, the Monarchs were in blazing hot form heading into Friday’s game. That hot form led to a confident on-field approach from Real Monarchs’ head coach Jámison Olave. Instead of sitting in a deep 4-4-2 block like they did in the last regular season matchup against Phoenix, the Monarchs came out in a more aggressive 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape. Though they used that shape against OC and in some of their other late-season matches, by turning away from the defensive 4-4-2, Olave sent a message to Phoenix’s coaching staff: the Real Monarchs were prepared to go toe-to-toe with Phoenix Rising.

Ironically, having an opposing team willingly open up the game by coming out of their defensive shell, even just a little, is exactly what Phoenix wanted. In the months leading up to the postseason, Phoenix’s players and coaches repeatedly talked about how they were ready and able to take advantage of open space, run in transition, and count on their “offensive defending” (the club’s term for pressing after a loss of possession) to limit the opposition’s chances.

Phoenix Rising controlled the opening stages of the game with those principles. They jumped out to an early lead thanks to a lovely piece of skill from Adam Jahn who received the ball from Solomon Asante, turned an opposing defender, and played Junior Flemmings through on goal. The space was there, and Phoenix took advantage of it. 

Up a goal and controlling the match, it looked like Phoenix Rising were going to cruise to the Western Conference Final. However less than 10 minutes later, the cracks in Phoenix’s defense started to show themselves. A few sloppy moments in possession and some ineffective counter-pressing let the Real Monarchs attack in transition. The visiting team used those transition attacks to tie the game and eventually take the lead before halftime.

Their first goal, Jack Blake’s rocket from just outside the box, came off a turnover from Kevon Lambert in midfield. Lambert lost the ball, the Monarchs transitioned quickly and moved the ball from left-to-right before Blake blasted it past Lubin.

Their second goal, Maikel Chang’s well-placed finish into the bottom right corner of the net, was only made possible by a couple of defensive errors from Phoenix Rising. First, Phoenix failed to properly apply pressure to the ball in the attacking half after Junior Flemmings lost possession on the right side of the attack. Look at how much space Monarchs’ right wing back Noah Powder has to work with on the wing:

The sideline is a perfect spot to trap the ball because it essentially acts as an extra defender. But instead of funneling Powder towards the outside or forcing him backwards, the left side of Phoenix’s defensive structure simply jogged back and got into their defensive block.

After giving the Monarchs space to move forward, Phoenix Rising made their second large defensive mistake of the sequence: they failed to properly communicate and apply pressure to the ball while defending in their low block. Jon Bakero, AJ Cochran, and Kevon Lambert didn’t rotate quickly enough to stop Powder from playing the ball forward or to stop Chang from receiving the ball, turning, and slotting it past Lubin.

Down 2-1, Phoenix began their push for an equalizer. Adam Jahn and Joey Farrell each had a quality chance in the second half that could have gotten the home team back into the game, but neither player was able to put their shot on frame. As the second 45 minutes progressed, the Real Monarchs began to sit deeper and deeper in their own half, sensing Phoenix’s desperation and combatting it with some mistake-free defending.

With their season on the line, Phoenix Rising kept trying new and different approaches to break through the opposing defense. Rick Schantz brought Ben Spencer on for Kevon Lambert in the 79th minute. Then he took off Amadou Dia in favor of Jason Johnson to finish overloading the attack. In the 93rd minute, Lubin even ventured forward to add another body in the box. 

But it wasn’t enough. A few sloppy moments in possession followed by a couple of defensive mistakes allowed the Real Monarchs to capture the game’s momentum and Phoenix Rising were never able to take it back.

“The idea tonight was for us to sit back a little bit deeper, let them have the ball, and then for us to counter,” Schantz said after the match. “It was perfect. Everything was working really well for the first 30 plus minutes, but two mistakes and you’re down 2-1 at halftime. This is a cruel sport.”

While Phoenix can’t claim that they were the significantly better team on Friday night, having their record-breaking season come to an abrupt end does feel slightly cruel. If this year’s Phoenix Rising team had made it to the final on November 17th and lifted USL Cup, there would have been no debate that they had completed the greatest USL season of all time. Without that trophy, the title of “best-ever USL team” may still be up for grabs, depending on how you view the relative importance of regular season success versus playoff success.

Though that debate over the best display of USL dominance is inevitable, the club isn’t waiting around to participate in it. 

“This will sting a little bit for a while and then we’ll go right back to work,” Schantz said. Adding later: “Monday morning, I’ll take my daughter to school and come back into the office and start building the team for next year.”

Roster construction doesn’t just start on Monday – Phoenix Rising’s front office and coaching staff have already been working behind the scenes to build next season’s roster. Player announcements could start coming as soon as this week.

“We have a lot [of players] that will be returning. There’s a lot of big news that will be coming soon. I’m really excited,” Schantz told the media after Friday’s loss. “We’ve already been working on the future of this organization and players that we’re looking for and the style of football and what I really want to implement over the next two or three years hopefully. We’ll keep going forward.“

Supplementing the group of returning players from 2019 will be a smaller set of new players, coming either from other USL teams or from other leagues around the world.

“We live in a fantastic market, so that market itself is very attractive to players,” general manager Bobby Dulle told me back in July. “When you couple that with an ownership group that is so committed and the product on the field and the facilities and the coaching staff and the medical team and the nutrition. All of those components make for a pretty attractive package. Lastly, you include someone like Didier Drogba that has relationships and a network and experience and is known all over the world, it makes our jobs a lot easier.”

Phoenix is a draw. Now more than ever before, players want to play for Phoenix Rising FC and experience the atmosphere at Casino Arizona Field.

“I had players on that team [the Real Monarchs] as they were walking off the field asking me if I’d be interested in them next year,” Phoenix’s manager said after the game. “We get that all the time and that’s a credit to this community, the fans, and the ownership.”

Though he is too selfless to say it, those conversations with opposing players wanting to come to the valley are also a credit to Schantz, both as a manager and as a person. Players want to play for the architect behind one of the most impressive tactical setups in American soccer and the leader of a positive, balanced locker room environment. Though at some point in the (potentially near) future Schantz is going to receive a tempting offer from a Major League Soccer team looking to fill a vacant coaching position, he will be Phoenix’s leading man for the 2020 season.

From Tucson to Phoenix, the work that Schantz has done to elevate and unify soccer in Arizona should not be under-appreciated. Poised to become the first coach in the post Arizona United-era to be in charge for two consecutive offseasons and two consecutive regular seasons, Schantz has the chance to continue leading Phoenix Rising and elevating the sport to new heights here in the valley.

“I’m really, really happy for Arizona, the whole state,” Schantz said. “It’s been a long time coming…When I was a little guy, I didn’t get to watch anything like this and now all these little kids are going to have goals and aspirations of playing for Phoenix Rising some day. That makes me proud. It hurts, it hurts to lose in front of them, but it just makes me want to work harder.”

Phoenix Rising’s 2019 season is over, but the coaches will be in the office on Monday – if not before – and news of player announcements will start to trickle out afterward. The 2020 season will be here before you know it. 

Thanks for reading the final Rising Tactics Recap of the 2019 season! Check back during the offseason for more analysis and insight.

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