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How do you replace a two-time MVP?
“You can’t replace Solo [Asante] at all,” Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz said on Wednesday. “That player, I haven’t seen that exists.
“What we did is we went out and found a guy that’s very athletic, very talented, very good one-v-one with a lot of experience in this league. But most importantly, Marcus Epps is a fantastic human being and it’s really been a pleasure to get to know him.”
Personality aside, Epps could now face a mammoth task. Solomon Asante scored 54 goals alongside 43 assists over a span of four seasons. For three straight years, he made the all-league first team. He wore the captain’s armband as Rising enjoyed a prolonged period of success.
Epps won’t have to replace Asante’s leadership, with the captaincy set to go to one of Rising’s longer-tenured players. However, the 5-foot-2 hole of one of USL’s most prolific players remains on the right wing.
“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 earlier in the offseason. “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.”
While Epps might be filling those shoes, he’s a fundamentally different player. That’s something that brings new opportunities for Phoenix as they pivot away from the Asante era.
“We can play balls in the air to the right side of the field,” Schantz said. “I joke about it, but actually it’s true. A lot of the year, we would always tell the goalkeepers and the center-backs not to play diagonal balls in the air to Solo because what’s he gonna do? Now you’ve got Marcus Epps, who I think has the highest vertical jump on the team.”
Last season, Epps won 56 aerial duels out of 103 attempts with San Antonio FC — the highest on his team. By contrast, Asante attempted only six in 2021, winning one.
The differences don’t end there.
“He brings a little bit more athleticism,” Rising winger Santi Moar told the PHNX Rising podcast. “We probably could exploit the balls in behind a little bit more. Solo was very, very quick in short spaces. Marcus is faster along the field. Obviously, we’re still trying to adjust for that change, but I think he’s going to bring a lot of qualities to this club.”
Moar played with Epps in the Philadelphia Union setup. With the pair expected to start on either side of the flank, that familiarity could prove useful.
“He assisted me, I assisted him,” Moar said of their past. “I think that chemistry, we’re going to get that chemistry back and he’s a great player….I know we are going to get goals together and he’s a great addition for the club.”
While there may be positives in the differences between the two, there’s also one very clear drop-off. Asante is a former Golden Boot winner. Meanwhile, Marcus Epps has never scored more than six goals in a single USL season.
“I definitely want to improve my goalscoring, and improve being a one-v-one defender,” Epps said. “ I think those two things are always helpful for whatever team you join, and it’s always helpful to improve in your game.”
Epps is of course just one of several changes to the Rising attack. Greg Hurst, Richard Antwi and an as-yet unnamed third striker will compete to lead the line.
Yet while Schantz recognizes the ability of returning players like Moar and Arturo Rodriguez, he isn’t heaping the pressure onto them as individuals.
“It’s a team,” Schantz said. “We score goals as a team, we defend as a team. We win or lose as a team.
“I tell all of them every year that there’s not a lot of MVPs that are chosen from teams that aren’t successful. If the team is successful, the individual accolades will come along with it, so let’s focus on the badge on the front of the jersey. Then, at the end of the year, the name on the back of the jersey will be remembered.”