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Rising prepares for improved San Diego side

Owain Evans Avatar
March 26, 2022

Coming off a loss to Las Vegas, Phoenix Rising’s coach knows that a clash with rival San Diego Loyal presents an even tougher challenge.

“We have to be our best selves,” Rick Schantz said. “If we do anything less than our best performance, we’ll pay for it. That’s it. It’s very simple.”

San Diego comes into the match with six points out of nine to start the year. They made the playoffs last season before crashing out at the first hurdle like Rising.

“I think they’re one of, if not the best team in the league,” Schantz said. “Very, very good. They’ve added a lot of good players. Landon [Donovan] must have come into a big pot of money because they used to complain about not being able to buy players, but they’ve got an amazing roster.”

Among those additions is Evan Conway, a forward who has featured predominantly on the left for San Diego so far. Conway joined from USL League One’s Union Omaha where his 13 goals helped fire his side to a title alongside current Rising striker Greg Hurst.

“Our goal, for both of us, was to get a championship move,” Hurst said of his time with Conway. “For having a strike partner that you were competing against but on the same team as, I couldn’t ask for a better partner. We both said at the start of the year we were going to get double digits. We were going to help each other out, and we did that.

“It’s going to be good to see how he does this year. I want him to do really well. I’m looking forward to playing against him and obviously when we play San Diego, I want to beat him but I want him to do well this year and I know he wants me to do well as well.”

Conway has yet to find the target this season, as has Kyle Vassell. The center-forward from Milton Keynes joined Loyal after scoring seven goals in 62 appearances in EFL League One over the past three seasons with Rotherham, Fleetwood and Cheltenham.

Danger should be expected from some of their returners. Alejandro Guido is back with the squad, providing a threat from the midfield. Tumi Moshobane could cause Rising worries after scoring 10 goals last season.

“I think their tactics are unique,” Rising defender Joe Farrell said. “They like to keep the ball a lot and they do open the field up with their spacing.”

Players such as Elijah and Collin Martin could be expected to dictate the tempo, as well as Kyle Adams and Camden Riley.

However, one piece of Loyal’s possession-maintaining puzzle appears questionable for their match against Rising. Grant Stoneman was injured in his side’s clash with Sacramento. He was substituted after eight minutes, and was left out of the match-day squad against Tulsa.

Nikko Boxall won’t play either because he is on international duty with New Zealand.

“The way they play is very attractive,” Schantz said. “A lot of rotation. A lot of good ball movement. I think they’re a little bit more practical in their approach to the game now so they can get you a couple of different ways. This is going to be an extremely difficult game. They’re a very, very good team; very organized with really, really good players.”

After opening the 2021 season with a resounding 4-1 victory over Loyal, Rising failed to dominate any other of their other three encounters. Over those three matches, Rising picked up four points, with a home draw follow by a loss and win at Torero Stadium.

“I think for us, learning from last year, it was kind of once we were able to limit them to the flanks, that helped us a lot,” Farrell said. “The first game away, they were able to find that underneath pocket behind the midfield in front of our back four.

“That’s what we’re going to focus on. That’s always an area that you want to snuff out from any team, so being able to limit that and kind of push it to one flank or the other will really help us defensively.”

FC Tulsa’s performance on Wednesday showed elements of that. San Diego enjoyed little possession in central positions near the penalty area. Instead, many of Loyal’s attacks seemed to come through the left wing.

Coming in from the flanks, Loyal attempted 30 crosses but connected on less than a quarter of them. Despite dominating possession with 62.9 percent, they took just eight shots and fell 1-0 to the hosts.

That result meant that both San Diego and Rising dropped points in their last match. This early in the season, that seems to carry more weight as a loss would see Rising with more defeats than victories for the first time since 2017.

“Right now, it just looks super, super important because there’s only nine points available,” Schantz said. “Each game we play, the goal is to get three points, but I think at this point right now we have to play better. We have to be more competitive. We have to be better in the duels. We’ve got to come with the right attitude every game, and I think if we do that, we’ll be alright.”

That doesn’t mean that his players aren’t thinking about it. Left-back Baboucarr Njie said that he believes San Diego won’t be ready for Rising because of the “rage we carry… inside of our heart because of the loss we took [last weekend].”

“It was humbling for us,” Njie said. “But we’d rather go through it right now than have to face it sometime later. We’re really, really prepared for San Diego. We see nothing but a win.

“It doesn’t matter how it comes. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly. We’re just going in to get results the best way possible.”

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