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5 positives to take from Rising's preseason

Owain Evans Avatar
March 10, 2022

Just under a year ago, Phoenix Rising trudged off the field after a 4-0 preseason loss to New Mexico. It was the first game of a doubleheader to end Rising’s 2020 preparations. It had been a dismal few weeks, and my question to Rising coach Rick Schantz reflected that.

“It’s doom and gloom from you, huh?” Schantz said.

A year later, things aren’t quite so gloomy after a much better set of preseason results. Flipping the narrative of 2021, here are the biggest positives we can take out of the 2022 preseason:

Results went their way

As last year showed, preseason results aren’t the be-all, end-all. That doesn’t mean that a string of positive results doesn’t provide something positive.

First, it’s a sign that the team is clicking. Rising hasn’t lost a match this preseason since its opener against Houston Dynamo. Clearly something is going right.

“We’ve got a very, very good locker room,” Schantz said. “The chemistry, the team spirit: they all get along well.”

Among those whose chemistry has impressed in February, Schantz singled out Santi Moar and Baboucarr Njie, as well as the link-up between Aodhan Quinn and Marcus Epps.

Second, never underestimate the impact that a run of form like this has on the team’s confidence.

“It’s obviously a boost for us keeping moving forward in preseason,” new captain Darnell King said after his side beat Sporting Kansas City. “Hopefully we keep carrying on and getting into this winning mentality. I’ve said before, that’s what we’re about and we want to carry it into the season.”

In battle to start up top, Hurst has hit form

If there’s any position in Rising’s squad that has spent much of this preseason in limbo, it’s the center-forward spot.

First, it looked likely to be Greg Hurst’s. Then Claudio Repetto arrived, bringing the experience of scoring goals in the USL Championship. Then Rising tinkered with a 4-4-2 set-up that could render the debate over starters redundant.

Regardless, we’ve now reached a point where Hurst is undeniably the in-form striker. Hurst has scored in each of the last two games. He recorded two assists against Valley United, while coming close several times off the post against Tucson.

“It’s just confidence,” Hurst said of his takeaways from the former of those two matches. “In preseason, you kind of want to have one of those games. Coming in from League One, I know a lot of people are going to ask questions of whether I’m going to be able to step up to this level.

“For me, it’s proven that I think I’m capable of doing it. It might take me a while to fit in and get used to the step up in standard, but I’m hear to prove that I can be at this level and taking confidence from that game is exactly what I needed.”

Overall, it adds up to a stellar preseason for the Scot that ought to render him the favorite to line up on Saturday.

“I think Greg is a special player,” Schantz said after the final preseason match. “He’s very, very intelligent. His movement is fantastic. He’s got great feet. In preseason, nobody’s going in trying to kill you and fight for their paycheck.

“Hopefully he maintains this level, but this is perfect. I think Claudio’s working hard and he’s got a different type of skills, as does Richmond [Antwi]. Richmond scored a couple of goals in preseason. I feel like between the three of them, we’re in a really, really good spot there.””

Rodriguez is back, looking better than ever

Arturo Rodriguez stood out last year. The youngster seemed to take the jump to Championship level in his stride, having previously starred for North Texas in League One. His unpredictability made him a handful for defenses across the league and a fan favorite here in Phoenix.

Sometimes, that unpredictability would backfire, however. There were moments where it looked like even he didn’t know what his next move would be, leading him almost to stall out.

That hasn’t been the case this preseason. We’ve seen Rodriguez move with a lot more purpose with the ball while also seeming to cover more ground. Not only that, but his individual moments of brilliance are still there.

“I think he’s more conscious of when he has to release the ball,” teammate Luis Manuel Seijas said. “Sometimes last year, I talked to him a lot. Sometimes he was taking a lot of inefficient touches. Watching him on the last games, you can see now that he knows when to keep the ball, and he knows when to play fast and where he can be really dangerous.

“Also, last year I tried to help him a little bit with his orientation when he receives the ball. He’s doing very well on that. It’s going to be a great season for him, and if he’s good, we’re going to do much, much better.”

Inevitably, conversations about the upcoming league MVP are already happening. Phoenix is always in that conversation, and this year’s favorite among national pundits seems to be Santi Moar. It’s a choice that makes sense, given that he was a finalist last year.

Rodriguez isn’t in that conversation outside of Phoenix. There’s a reason for that: They haven’t seen the preseason matches. They haven’t seen the improvements that he’s made over the offseason.

If they had, Rodriguez would have been right up there on that list.

Epps isn’t Asante, but that’s OK

Darnell King might be picking up the “big little shoes” of Solomon Asante as a captain, but it’s Marcus Epps who’ll have to replace him as a winger. If that pressure weren’t enough, Epps will also have the burden of wearing the Ghanaian’s former number on his back.

“It’s definitely big shoes [to fill] when you come in because of the type of talent that Phoenix has had on the wings, and currently has, but that’s something that I pride myself on,” Epps said on signing with the club. “I love competition. I think that brings out the best in players and a team, so I’m just eager to be involved in that.”

The biggest question regarding Epps was always his ability to replace Asante’s goal scoring. Asante had previously won the Golden Boot. Epps has never scored more than six goals in the regular season.

The new winger has more than impressed in other aspects, though. His footwork has been consistently impressive in preseason matches, and his ability to work in tight spaces in the final third is unquestionable.

Rising faced FC Tucson to round out the preseason. A hat trick for Epps in the final tune-up may not prove an awful lot about his ability, but it does inevitably help his confidence.

“It means the world to get those three goals heading into the season,” Epps said after the match. “Hopefully it translates into the first game of the year.”

Off the pitch, too, Epps seems to be settling in with the squad.

“He is an amazing person,” fellow newcomer Njie said of Epps. “I’ve just met him, but it feels like I’ve known him for a very long time.”

Future looks bright with academy kids

The Detroit City preseason match saw one notable achievement for Rising: the use of an entire XI of academy players to end the match. They were a credit to the club, holding on for 15 minutes against another championship side.

“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.”

That could have been the pinnacle of the season for the academy kids, but it wasn’t. The following match, Tommy Wise found his way onto the scoresheet with the winning goal over GCU.

Among other notable moments, Blaize Hardy took the field to replace an injured James Musa. The youngster had appeared in some 2021 preseason games, too, but drew far less attention than now-first teamer Niall Dunn. This year, Hardy showed further improvement, looking remarkably cool and competent in the center-back position.

“It’s awesome, because I think the academy has done a really good job over the last few years, and to see them now be able to step in and help us in preseason is what you’re really looking forward to,” Schantz said.

Overall, most Rising academy appearances might have been minor this preseason, and it’s likely that most players will never don the red jersey in a competitive match. However, if even a few of these players follow in Dunn’s footsteps and get the chance to showcase their abilities in a league or Open Cup match, it could prove a very exciting moment indeed.

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