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Phoenix Rising’s preseason entered a new phase on Friday, with a doubleheader of matches. The club opened the night with a 5-0 win against Valley United, before playing to a 2-2 draw with Detroit City.
Tactical experiment in Game 1
Opening the doubleheader against Valley United, Rising was in a new formation.
The last time that Rising tinkered in that manner came a year ago, but a poor performance against Colorado Springs quickly put an end to the experiment of playing with three defenders.
This time, it was the previously promised 4-4-2 setup. Unlike before, Rising utterly dominated, even if playing against much weaker opposition.
“The setup kind of worked really well for us with Luis [Manuel Seijas] and Arturo [Rodriguez],” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “We knew that they would have a lot more space to receive the ball.”
It wasn’t just the midfield that shone, but also the attacking partnership. Greg Hurst and Richmond Antwi started up top, with Claudio Repetto featuring in the second match. Between the pair, they scored three goals — including two for Antwi which were assisted by Hurst.
“I can’t be more impressed with Greg,” Schantz said. “He’s been phenomenal. His first touches, so clean. Both assists that he had for Richie were unbelievable.”
While the performance was pleasing, it is worth noting the inferiority of the opposition. That’s something to consider especially with regard to the firepower Rising possessed in its attack.
“It was a little bit stretched at times, and we were a little frantic in the first 10 minutes or so, but I think once we calmed down and got that goal, it was a little easier for us to take advantage of the 4-4-2,” Schantz said. “We found ourselves often four-v-four, and when you’ve got that with Santi [Moar], Greg, Richmond and Joey Calistri, I’ll take our chances in that situation.”
Arturo continues to improve
There are few Rising players that have sparked as much excitement about their potential as Arturo Rodriguez. The explosive Rising midfielder has often been put forward as one of the keys to this season. His chance-creating abilities aren’t to be overlooked.
“He’s still holding on to the ball a lot,” Schantz said. “He slows the game down a little bit. I think tonight, he was turning and driving at the opposition rather than just standing in one spot and getting a lot of touches. I think the last couple of games, he’s been a little bit too cute with the ball. But tonight, you saw real purpose and that he was really trying to drive the offense forward.”
Rodriguez’s role in Rising’s doubleheader opener was as impressive as his coach hinted. One thing that was clear was his willingness to drop into his own half to gather the ball, spearheading the attack from deep. He did this both to help earn a first-half penalty, launching a long ball forward from his own third to pick out Joey Calistri, and in driving forward from deep to set up Greg Hurst’s second-half goal.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Rodriguez launch one from deep this preseason. In the match against Sporting Kansas City, he created a clear-cut chance for Marcus Epps in similar circumstances. Clearly, his willingness to drop deep combined with his vision up the field are promising signs.
“He’s a very special player,” Schantz said. “He can do things with the ball that many, many players can’t, but he has to understand that it’s a very, very small amount of time that you actually have the ball in a soccer game. It’s what you do without it that makes you even better.
“So, he’s grown. He understands the system, very coachable. He’s listening. I think he’s going to have a good year as long as the team does.”
Struggles to open second match
In the second game of the doubleheader, Rising faced a new challenge: USL Championship newcomers Detroit City.
“We had no idea what to expect, and they were in a 3-5-2,” Schantz said. “We hadn’t even talked about how to break down a 3-5-2 so I think tactically, we were struggling in the first half.”
Rising had actually started on the front foot, creating a chance within 60 seconds and even earning a penalty thanks to Marcus Epps. Unfortunately, Claudio Repetto’s effort from the spot proved easy enough for Detroit goalkeeper Nate Steinwascher to stop.
“I think the first half, we were a little bit lackadaisical after missing a couple of opportunities, but once we kind of stepped into our rhythm and finally started getting the ball to move, I think we did well,” defender Ryan Flood said.
Detroit found two goals after some poor defending at Rising’s end. On the first, a deep giveaway from Flood set up a City trialist for the opener. That trialist found the net again minutes later, after Billy Forbes outpaced Rising on the wing with relative ease.
“I think Channing [Chasten], this was a big step up for him and a big challenge,” Schantz said. “Ryan [Flood], you know he struggled in the first half but came on and had the right mentality in the second half.”
“He just kind of told us to come out [in the second half] and do our thing and stop worrying about all the external factors like the offsides and the refs, and stuff like that,” Flood said. “So just play our game, and we came out and did that.”
Academy kids hold their own
Rising’s opener for the doubleheader lasted 75 minutes, but the second match ran a full 90. That opened up a new opportunity for Rising to put out a full XI of academy players to round out the match.
“I think the best thing for me tonight was to see our 17 and 18-year-olds get to play the last 15 minutes and with such confidence,” Schantz said. “It was so awesome for them to move the ball and we were praying that they were going to get that last chance and score the goal to win it. That would have been pretty awesome.”
Rising’s academy players entered the match just after Flood brought the scores level. The youngsters battled admirably against a side of professionals, keeping the scores level and even having a chance to steal a win late on if an unnamed youth striker had been able to keep his shot down.
“They kept the ball really well,” Flood said. “They were moving it around. I think they’re a great group, and I think there’s a lot of years to come and I think they’re on the right foot already.”
While it’s unlikely that we’ll see any of those players again this year, there were still positives to take from the match. In a sport that prioritizes youth development so much, potential was clear to see in the Rising ranks.
“I got to speak to all of them and tell them how proud I am to watch them play, and to play in this environment against a team like that, and to play with such confidence,” Schantz said. “It’s amazing, and it’s moving in the right direction for Phoenix Rising, and I think the future is even brighter.”