Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC.

With just over two weeks left before Phoenix Rising kick off their regular season, it’s time to get back into the swing of things. Because it’s almost always unwise to prepare detailed tactical analysis pieces based on preseason games, I opted to do a preseason Q&A instead. So, after Phoenix’s 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, I put out a call for questions on Twitter…and you folks came through with a bunch. Let’s get to it!

Based on the first few preseason games what does it look like Schantz is changing this year? – @schulz

To be honest, I’ve been asking myself (and Phoenix Rising’s players and coaches) this same question and the general conclusion has been that nothing major has changed. Rick Schantz is still going to be using the same aggressive, high-intensity style based on both possession and attacking transitions that he used last year. We’re still going to see Phoenix press high up the field and we’re still going to see them build out from the back against most teams. There may be some positional tweaks as the season goes on (more on this later), but those things aren’t really going to be changes. They’re going to be additions to Schantz’s 2019 strategy.

Do you see evidence in the GCU/Crew/SKC games that indicates we are implementing Rick’s [Schantz] style of play?- @RisingFan1

Absolutely. The GCU match was tough for Phoenix because it was one of the first times that the team actually played together in 2020 (also, the field was bumpy and the grass was poor, which made it tough for Rising to pass with the level of precision that we’re accustomed to seeing from them). The Columbus Crew and SKC games were much better. Though there were certainly mistakes in both matches, the imprecise buildup in the first half against the Crew stands out in my mind, the team is clearly much farther along in their understanding of and ability to execute Schantz’s system than they were at this time last season.

Your starting eleven and why? – @RisingFan1

I hate to be all “lineups should be based on the opponent and different players have different skill sets that should be used in different situations”, but it’s true. That’s why it’s so hard to answer this question (that and Rising have too many excellent players). There are definitely a few spots where it’s easy for me to pencil names into Phoenix Rising’s starting lineup. Zac Lubin in goal is an obvious one (though Eric Dick impressed me with his saving and passing ability against SKC). Both fullback spots seem destined to go to new signings Owusu-Ansah Kontoh (left back) and Darnell King (right back). AJ Cochran (for his passing) and Corey Whelan (for literally everything) would be my starting center backs and I’m guessing Schantz agrees. Jon Bakero should be one of the number 8s in most games, and Solomon Asante and Junior Flemmings should be the starting wingers.

Who plays the other two spots in midfield and striker should depend on the opponent. For times when Phoenix need some extra defensive strength and can get away with less technical ability in midfield, Kevon Lambert should start as a CDM. In games where Phoenix want to play out from the back against a high press, Jordan Schweitzer is probably the guy to play that spot. Jose Aguinaga is likely ahead of Jack Barmby in the race to start opposite Bakero in midfield, but I haven’t seen enough of Barmby to get a read on his fit with this team. It’s also possible that we see Lambert play as a number eight this season, pushing high up the field to press and win the ball while leaving Schweitzer to play at the base of midfield (more on this later).

Finally, Phoenix Rising’s options at striker lead us to our next question.

How do you keep Lagos Kunga out of the Starting XI the way he’s been playing?  – @PositivelyDOM

“The Great Battle Between Lagos Kunga and Rufat Dadashov” will go down in history. Okay, that’s a definite exaggeration, but still, the battle for playing time at striker has been (and will continue to be) a fun storyline to watch this year. Kunga has been excellent in preseason. He has great speed, a high defensive work-rate, and can play a well-weighted ball in the final third. Dadashov hasn’t shown nearly as much here in Arizona, but has played at a very solid European level (the 3. Bundesliga) and smart people tell me that Dadashov’s soft feet and his off-ball movement are top-notch.

Because both players have very different skillsets, “The Great Battle Between Lagos Kunga and Rufat Dadashov” will be decided by Phoenix Rising’s opponent on any given day. Dadashov should play against a low-block and Kunga should play against a high pressing, aggressive team. Also, expect to see them play side-by-side at the end of games in more of a 4-4-2/4-2-4 shape.

Do you know if we are seeking players on loan again this season? – @RisingFan1

Schantz told the media after Wednesday’s match that Phoenix is in discussions with a few MLS teams about getting a center back out here on loan, but it doesn’t appear that Phoenix Rising is in any hurry to get that done. They played much of last season with only three rostered center backs and it looks like that’s a real possibility for the first couple of months of the 2020 regular season as well.

How do we get Solo [Asante], [Junior] Flemmo, and Santi [Moar] on the pitch at the same time? – @Vanislegend4L

There are two main ways that I could see all three of Solomon Asante, Junior Flemmings, and Santi Moar playing at the same time and they both involve moving Asante inside. (This answers @jrphillips186’s question: Do you see Moar or Asante as the most likely candidate to move inside so that we can get those two and Flemmings on the pitch at the same time?) Schantz could tuck Asante into midfield as one of the advanced CMs in his preferred 4-3-3 or he could change his shape slightly to a 4-2-3-1 and have Asante play underneath Kunga or Dadashov. Either way, it’s not a natural fit (Asante holds onto the ball for too long to make him a rhythm-builder in central midfield), but it may be worth it to allow Flemmings and Moar to play on opposite wings.

What are your takeaways from our high press this preseason? It’s been highly effective against multiple MLS clubs and lineup rotations. Are MLS players just being overly complacent or are we just more effective at it? – @jrphillips186

MLS teams are definitely still working out the kinks, but I think Phoenix Rising’s high press has been very good so far this preseason. The wingers and central midfielders especially haven’t missed a beat since last season and the new guys have fit in well too; they’ve been active in their movement and appear to understand their responsibilities. Kunga and Dadashov both need more time to get reps in the defensive system, but they should be able to get those in the last three preseason games.

How likely will we see other USL clubs attempt to build from the back against us? – @jrphillips186

Certain clubs like El Paso and Real Monarchs will play out from the back against pretty much anybody, Phoenix Rising included. Most other teams in USL won’t be so bold. Phoenix Rising’s high press and their attacking transitions are their two biggest strategic assets, so when a team that is not excellent at building from the back tries to do so, Phoenix will make them pay.

TLDR answer: we’ll see a few teams do it against Rising but not many.

How does Coach see Stanton fitting into this midfield? Is he more in the mold of Bakero/Barmby or Aguinaga or Lambert/Schweitzer? Is Godoy gone without signing? Felt it was weird he didn’t feature vs. SKC.. –  @ghost_rooney

Don’t think I didn’t notice you sneaking in an extra question in there… But on a serious note, I’ve never seen Stanton play, but I believe Schantz sees him as one of the advanced CMs (Bakero/Barmby/Aguinaga) instead of as a CDM (Lambert/Schweitzer).

Regarding trialist Gio Godoy, I’m not sure if he’s still in the valley, but I don’t really believe that he was ever in contention to be signed. Phoenix has too much attacking depth to fit another winger in their squad.

Formation-wise, how can Phoenix play Schweitzer & Kevon Lambert together? – @PositivelyDOM

I think Lambert and Schweitzer will play together in a 4-3-3 at least a handful of times this season, with Schweitzer as the CDM and Lambert as a CM. If Schantz wants to change things up a bit, Lambert and Schweitzer could play as a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, but that will happen far less often.

How much role shifting mid-game do you see us doing this year?  With all the talent and players that can play at multiple positions it seems like we could make huge (more than you typically see) adjustments to completely change our look mid-game. – @prfcfanshow

There is a lot of potential for mid-game adjustments this season, maybe more so than in any prior season. Lambert could push forward, Asante could tuck in, Kunga could could partner with Dadashov, and Jack Barmby and Joey Calistri could move wide or central, depending on where they started. On a team-wide basis, Schantz could start in a 4-3-3 and shift to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 in late-game situations. The basic style won’t change, but the formation/exact personnel combinations certainly can (and will).

How big of a role do you anticipate Jose Aguinaga having this season? – @BDenny29

I expect Jose Aguinaga to be in competition to start as a CM every week. His partnership with Bakero was excellent last season and he’s been very solid in preseason so far. Right now, I see him as a favorite to start most games, so if I had to bet, I’d guess that he will start at least two-thirds of Phoenix’s games in 2020. He’s going to have a big role.

Do you think we’ll have a better run in the U.S. Open Cup this year? – @Master_Roshi10

After losing to New Mexico United on penalties in last year’s U.S. Open Cup, Phoenix Rising will be itching to make a deeper run in this year’s edition of the tournament. With more depth and another year of experience in their back pocket, I would expect them to make it farther than they did last year when they bowed out in the second round. Even with a large number of “second-team” players in the lineup, Phoenix should still be very competitive. Below is a look at a very theoretical U.S. Open Cup lineup with a mix of presumed depth guys and first-choice players in the starting group. It still looks darn good.

Favorite USL media relations guy? – anonymous

Hmmm, this is a tough one. FC Tucson’s Dolphus Pearson was a pleasure to work with earlier this preseason, but I’ve got to go with Jose Bosch, simply for his ability to shine in postgame media scrum. The way he says “last question” is pure poetry.

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