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In some ways, it’s a tale as old as time. Phoenix Rising‘s nemeses have changed over the years as USL Championship expands and contracts. One remains mostly constant: the struggle of breaking down opponents in a low block late in-season.
Nowhere was that more apparent than away to Rio Grande Valley FC. An early set-piece goal for the hosts, compounded by a dismissal in first-half stoppage time saw the Toros drop back in numbers to snuff out any smidge of Rising creativity in the final-third.
“I think it went wrong in a multitude of ways,” Rising wing-back Eddie Munjoma said. “But, I think a lot of it was based on just our mentality.
“We had the game against El Paso before that when we won 5-0, and I think we maybe came into it a little bit relaxed and that’s obviously something that we have to right that wrong this week.”
RGV aren’t alone among Rising opponents to employ a low block in recent weeks. After each passing game, be they at Cashman Field or at home against Sacramento, coach Juan Guerra asks: when was the last time you saw Rising’s opposition play so negatively?
“I think it’s a response to the way we’re playing,” Guerra said after training on Friday. “I’ve said it over social media and on camera to a lot of people that we embrace and we like when teams press us. We’re a team that likes to be high-pressed. We’re a team that likes to play through lines. We’re a team that, when we’re in possession, we’re expanded and we feel very comfortable when those things happen.
“To me, it’s not a surprise [to see teams counter with a low block].”
Against RGV, Rising failed to find the back of the net. Then, despite quiet first halves against both Las Vegas and Sacramento, Phoenix found ways to trouble the opposition goalkeeper.
“It’s easy to get stressed because of that, but for us, I feel like the most important thing is to keep calm and also to get pace on the ball, to move them as much as we can,” defender John Stenberg said.
“I think we did a good job on that against Sacramento. I think, especially in the second half, we moved them from side to side and eventually spaces are going to open.”
“The main focus with that kind of situation is to just to be patient,” Munjoma said. “Be patient and obviously trust in the talent we have in the group. Breaking down a low block in any level is obviously one of the hardest things to do, but we have the players capable, especially in this league, to be able to do that.”
Rising’s ability to continue finding ways to counter the low block will prove critical in the coming weeks, as the team sits just two points below fourth place and a potential home playoff matchup.
“Now, we’re embracing both too,” Guerra said. “We’re enjoying playing versus lower blocks, and we have the ability now to use our goalkeeper too in build-up moments in which we create numerical superiority in areas of the field that we want to expose, and we have the ability to do both. It’s been a great opportunity for growth and development and adaptation and transformation of the squad, and also for the players to show how versatile they can be.”
Yet even if Rising finds ways to continue grinding out results against teams employing the low block, don’t expect things to start getting easier.
“Teams are going to start, probably, not taking the same amount of risk game after game,” Guerra said. “Teams want to hold on to results. Teams want to make sure that if they cannot win, they don’t lose, and they can keep adding points. That makes things more interesting for us.
“Now, what I saw last game is not just the ability to, now we’re playing versus a lower block, We were able to neutralize a team that has a lot of offensive power. Defensively, the group was very, very solid. Being able now to do both, it’s very important, so we’ll see as the season goes what happens with the other teams.”