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Phoenix Rising is going into a season with not one, not two, but three options at center-forward.
That’s something Rising coach Rick Schantz described as a “priority” going into the offseason.
“We knew what we were looking for,” he said. “We knew what we wanted, we were talking about it in November.”
It’s hard not to be excited when we’re debating who out of a pair of strikers with proven goal-scoring experience in the professional ranks will start for Rising. It’s hard not to be excited when the third choice up top is a 21-year-old who seemingly couldn’t miss the net while playing in Sudan.
But isn’t there just a part of you that wonders: What if this had been a priority in the past?
In 2020, there was a similar excitement around the striker position. Lagos Kunga had arrived on loan from Atlanta United, and his preseason performances showed us something new. He offered something different up top to first choice Rufat Dadashov — something lacking in the previous season’s pairing of Adam Jahn and Ben Spencer.
It soon became apparent why he offered something different. Rising’s backup center-forward wasn’t a center-forward.
That might sound like a critique of Kunga, but it isn’t. He admitted that he wasn’t comfortable in that position. He admitted that he was, at heart, a winger.
In a pandemic-shortened season, Kunga played nine games for Rising. He scored in his first, and that ended his tally. In only two appearances did his minutes reach double digits, neither of which came after July.
The fact that the season was pandemic-shortened was likely Rising’s saving grace. With just 16 regular-season games, Dadashov was able to make it through the year unscathed.
The following season, after Kunga had departed the club, another loan signing arrived to provide backup up top. This time it was David Egbo, joining the side from Vancouver Whitecaps.
Egbo wasn’t the only option for a backup striker. Seyi Adekoya came in as a player with experience playing up top. He was never truly favored, though, making just four appearances off the bench before being discarded in August on loan to OKC Energy.
Remarkably, at the exact same time, Dadashov was in the process of securing a move back to Germany. He made his final appearance off the bench in the last match before Adekoya departed too.
At that stage, Rising had won six of its previous seven, cruising to its usual regular- season dominance. Egbo had proven himself somewhat capable, with four goals in his first five matches for the club — the same number that Dadashov had managed that year.
When Egbo first joined the side, he spoken about his role on the pitch.
“Most of my career, I’ve been tagged as a number nine, as a forward, but I don’t really think I’m one,” Egbo said. “I like the ball at my feet. I like to create and all that, but yeah, I don’t really know if I’m a true number nine.”
Again, Rising had a backup center-forward that didn’t identify as really being one — except this time, that backup striker had to be the one to deliver.
The first game without Dadashov was a 2-2 draw in Las Vegas. The second game was a 1-1 draw at home to Orange County, requiring a Prince Saydee equalizer deep into stoppage time. The third game was a 0-0 draw at home against Sacramento.
Then, Rising went to bottom-placed Oakland. Phoenix lost 3-1.
With each game, Egbo — who was in his first season as a professional, no less — was becoming visibly less and less confident.
The reaction from outside the field likely wouldn’t have helped. It may seem strange to become too critical of a team in first place for a short run of poor form, but Rising had never gone more than four regular season games in a year without picking up a win.
In the end, things did pick up. A win followed in the next match, albeit through the sheer grit of a rivalry match and the unbeatable heroics of Joey Calistri, a man who never ceases to prove himself as New Mexico’s kryptonite.
Thereafter, Egbo was displaced. Darren Mattocks arrived and boasted a pedigree worthy of the starting spot. Egbo didn’t even seem to be the backup any longer, with Jon Bakero performing what appeared to the eye to be a makeshift nine, even if there were protests that he had played the role well in college. Why that option was never on the table as Egbo’s confidence was chipped away remains a mystery.
Egbo scored once more in Rising colors. He found the net away to Vegas in mid-October, almost three months to the day from his last goal.
Perhaps that’s why there is an extra degree of excitement this season. Instead of relying on someone who simply doesn’t look comfortable up there, Rising has genuine choices when it comes to the center-forward spot.
On a squad that often boasts of its internal competitiveness pushing players to better things, it’s been lacking in that department up top. Too often, we’ve been caught up asking: What if?
What if something happens to the striker? What if we can’t get somebody else in soon? What if you could have a real alternative off the bench, joining an attack with some of the most formidable players in the league?
Today, when the players take the field for another preseason match, we won’t be asking what if? It’s refreshing, exciting and all because the question has changed.
What can they achieve this season between them?