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Just weeks away from the start of the season, Phoenix Rising has only three center-backs expected to be available.
17-year-old Niall Dunn has been ruled out due to long-term injury. That leaves Rising with just James Musa, Joe Farrell and Manuel Madrid available at those spots.
According to Rising coach Rick Schantz, Dunn recently underwent hip surgery, which removed several small bone spurs on the joint.
“He’s doing really, really well,” Schantz said. “I think he’s already walking and it’s been three days or so. It’s still 4-6 months, but because of his age, we felt that it was very important for him to take care of it right now rather than try to play through it and tough it out.”
With Rising’s usual formation utilizing two center-backs, that runs the risk of the club being short while they wait for him to recover. Indeed, Manuel Madrid is currently being rested due to a groin strain, leaving no depth at the back.
It is possible that Rising brings in another option at the back. In Saturday’s friendly against Louisville, two trialists took part in the game, yet neither remains with the club. One of the trialists was Yuma native Gabriel Claudio.
“[He’s a] good player, did really well,” Schantz said. “He showed some promise. I think he may be going with Union Omaha for a week on trial. Hopefully he gets to play there and we can watch him and observe how he does in League One.”
Also on trial was Ryan Ludwick, who Schantz said “came in a bit late” in the preseason to make the cut.
Rising could make a loan signing to provide cover, but Schantz played down any urgency to do so.
“We do have a couple of options that we’re working with a few MLS teams, but nothing too serious as of yet,” he said.
So what happens if nobody comes in?
It is possible that Rising starts the season with just three center-backs, especially as any loan signing wouldn’t have guaranteed playing time.
“If all three are healthy and you’re in a game, you’re never going to expect to have two center-backs on a bench,” Schantz stated.
Rising’s depth in other positions opens up the possibility of existing players being drafted in to assist.
“In short-term, I think Darnell [King] could play center-back very easily,” Schantz said. “I think Ryan Flood or Baboucarr [Njie] could fill in on the left if needed. And then for maybe a couple of weeks, we’d probably have the solutions there. There’s a possibility that [Kevon] Lambert could drop back and Aodhan [Quinn] could slide to the holding midfield position.”
A more drastic method of dealing with an in-season shortage could come through a change in tactic. Rising experimented playing three at the back in the 2021 preseason, although hasn’t lined up in that manner since. King, Farrell and Noah Billingsley featured in defense during a closed-door friendly against Colorado Springs that utilized that formation. Only one of those players is a traditional center-back.
Outside of games could pose the biggest challenge to running with just three center-backs, though. Schantz’s teams typically train with two squads of 11 at some stage during each week. A lack of center-backs on hand could hinder preparations.
In the interim, the team has been forced to rely on youth players to fill the gap.
“We’re really fortunate today that we had three of our academy players come in and they’ve done really well,” Schantz said. “We’re really happy that they can take a day off of school and come train with us but it’s a great experience I think for those guys. They were pushed very, very hard today, but that’s what we need to see from our academy players.”