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It might seem hard to suggest that Phoenix Rising, sitting fourth in the table, needs to rebound from anything other than a bad loss.
For those who have watched Rising’s recent performances, however, something hasn’t been right.
“I don’t think there’s a single factor that we can point out, or a single player or a single decision that we can say ‘OK, this was the reason,'” Rising winger Santi Moar said. “To lose like that, 5-1 at home, there has to be a few things that don’t click or don’t go right, and that’s what caused the loss.”
Rising’s loss to Tampa Bay Rowdies was the team’s worst home defeat since 2017. Rising has stumbled in May after recording a perfect April. This month, Phoenix has won just one of its four matches, defeating San Antonio at Wild Horse Pass.
“I thought that beating San Antonio 3-0, the scoreline didn’t really reflect how the match was played, but they’re a good team,” coach Rick Schantz said. “We knew that, and we knew that would be a difficult game.
“I think right now we need to understand that in order to win games, we have to get back to being aggressive. We have to get back to pressing. We have to get back to causing turnovers from the opposition, and if we can’t do that, recognizing when you get into our mid block or a low block and getting compact and showing some discipline. It really comes down to each player looking at themselves and really evaluating what they need to improve and what they can do to help the team.”
A change in tactics was in the cards last weekend. Throughout the season, Rising has been toying with a system that places three center-backs in the defense, rather than the usual two. Against Tampa Bay, that team looked to become unstuck.
“The reason we played a 3-4-2-1 [against Tampa Bay] was because we’re just missing defensive midfielders and we needed to hopefully shore up the defense,” Schantz said. “I think when you’re changing this much, whether it’s injury or availability, you’re changing tactics and you’re trying to make adjustments and we’re doing everything we can to figure things out, but it’s a puzzle. Every season, you’ve got a puzzle, you’ve got your pieces and you’ve got to figure out how to put it all together to have a winning formula.”
Rising is currently dealing with an injury crisis in the squad. James Musa, Kevon Lambert, Aodhan Quinn and Channing Chasten have all missed recent matches.
With a dearth of defensive-minded players in the midfield, Schantz could have turned to Sivert Haugli, who previously played the position in college.
“We’ve talked about it, but not in this particular game [against the Rowdies] because we knew we were going to play with three at the back and having those three we felt was better than putting him as a lone six against Tampa,” Schantz said. “Also, they were going to play with double tens, we thought, so you couldn’t just play with a single six, which they did.
“Tactically, the plan was correct. The problem was not enough preparation time, not enough implementation, not enough confidence in the system. I think that’s where myself, I’ve got to look long and hard about what we’re doing as a coaching staff, but when you’ve got three in a week, it’s pretty difficult to change systems in three different games. We’re not quite there yet, and that’s on me and player availability.”
Even for players that are available for selection, injuries have been an issue. Moar suffered an ankle sprain during an Open Cup match against Valley United in early April. He returned to play before it fully healed.
“Obviously you don’t want an ankle injury when you are starting the season,” Moar said. “Playing when it still hurts, it obviously is not the best situation. Still, I want to push. I want to be back in full fashion as soon as possible. Right now, to be honest, after five, six games, I feel a little bit better. I feel like it doesn’t restrict me any more, as it did for the last three or four matches. Still, we are not 100 percent as a team, and individually we can all give a little bit more.”
It isn’t just injuries, though. According to Moar, those players who are fully fit haven’t hit their potential yet either.
“The people that are healthy, we also have another level that we can get to,” Moar said. “You do that by training together and trusting each other. I think we are lacking a little bit of both. Trusting the teammates behind, in front, and I think getting at each other’s faces sometimes, it will help. It will help to demand more from each other and get out there, and get the results for the fans so they can keep supporting us.”
Among the improvements needed is an improvement in team discipline. Rising has ended its last three league matches with just 10 players on the field. The latest to receive a red card was Joe Farrell, whom the league announced has received a one-match suspension.
“It’s a small detail,” Schantz said. “It’s getting early yellows, getting dissent yellows, being late in the tackle. You know you’re going to get a yellow card for going up for a header and a guy undercuts you or something like that, and the referee reads it one way or another. There are yellow cards that are acceptable, but one of our key factors in winning games is no dissent yellows, and I think now we’re getting frustrated in our performance and we start yelling at the referees. We start yelling at one another. We start getting a bit frustrated and that then breeds a kind of lack of intelligence. I’ve talked to the guys definitely about that. They are definitely aware that it’s an issue, and it’s pretty difficult to play with 10.”
Rising is looking forward to a clash against rival New Mexico United on Saturday, and the chance to rebound in form.
“It didn’t matter who we were playing this Saturday, there’s definitely pressure,” Schantz said. “I talked to the staff about that. We always have pressure. That’s part of the job. I know that no matter what’s going on, ultimately it’s my responsibility, and I accept that and I’m 100 percent responsible for the players. So, it doesn’t matter who we play on Saturday as long as we do what we’re supposed to do: Give 100 percent, fight until the very end. The results will be the results, but what we can’t do is what we did this past weekend.”
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