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It can be tough for a team emotionally when coming off a spell of three losses, regardless of the circumstances. For Phoenix Rising, however, the preparation for Hartford Athletic has not been plagued by frustration.
“Spirits were high,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “We had a really, really good training Wednesday. We had to split the group in two. The guys that didn’t travel who were available could train. So, it worked out. We had 10. Then the other group had a recovery session after being on the bus the whole night and had a good lunch, and I’m pretty sure everyone went home and slept most of the day.
“In the morning, everyone was excited. I think they’re ready to move forward and kind of put everything behind them.”
Rising’s last loss was heavy, and came at the hands of New Mexico United. After initially seeing its match postponed due to a positive COVID case on Phoenix’s squad, the match was rescheduled for Tuesday night — the day that teammates deemed close contacts were first released from their isolation.
All in all, Rising had just nine professional players available for selection. In order to field a side, Rising added a further six academy players to its ranks, bringing the total to eight.
That squad — heavily dominated by those unpaid teenagers — fell 7-0. After the match, clearly emotional senior players who had made the trip made their feelings known. “They got what they wanted,” one said. Another described the celebrations of the opposition as “disrespectful” given the circumstances of their victory.
“I feel like it’s been very galvanizing for the fans, our ownership, the front office, the players, the coaching staff,” Schantz said. “It’s that one moment where, I talk about it often, what happened here at Phoenix Rising the last five years doesn’t happen a lot. You know, a few clubs like Tampa, Louisville, they probably have the same feeling. Every time they play a game, the opposition wants to win. The opposition wants to play the best that they possibly can. You kind of have this target on your back.
“I think, you know, we say it, and when we have new players when they come into our club, they think it, but I don’t think they really understand. In a moment like Tuesday night with what we’ve gone through with COVID and still having to play, I think it’s, like I said, really galvanizing. It’s brought the group together, and as I was told by a good friend, it’s our Sparta moment. I told the players it’s just us. It’s just us together. You can’t look around for help. We have to solve this and we have to get after it.”
Several of the academy players who received the call up graduated high school this week after featuring in their first professional game. But any fear that their confidence would be hurt after the match was soon put to rest by Rising’s fanbase, which quickly christened them “Los Niños Héroes.”
“They were mostly really thankful and they wished that they could have gotten a result,” Schantz said. “We talked to them about the opportunity about being legendary. I think they felt like they let the club down, but the response from the fans was unbelievable. It really lifted their spirits.”
With most of Rising’s players now back from ioslation, there are few fears about academy players featuring in bulk. Getting players back to match fitness proved a challenge, but not an unusual one for Phoenix.
“Ironically, COVID taught us a lot of things,” Schantz said. “I think one of the most important things we learned is that you have to be flexible in training. So, even the players in isolation, they were not allowed in the building but we set up the field, I think it was Monday or Tuesday while we were out of town. Each player had his own tent. He had his own essentially 30, 40 yards, and our fitness coach took them through a fitness training session, kept them all apart from one another. They came in their own car. They went back to their own apartment.
“So, we were very diligent about following the rules, but we’ve done that before. At the beginning of COVID, it was the only way we could train, so we just kind of went back into that mode.”
When it comes to the mentality that Rising’s players needs to show, Schantz has no doubt that his players are up to the task.
“We don’t need any self-pity, and we don’t need to put our heads down,” Schantz said. “We just have to keep going. I think the vibe that I felt from the players when we got back, the guys that didn’t travel, they were itching to play. They were begging ‘Coach, let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s train.’ They wanted to stay out there all day, and it’s a real motivated group.”