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When Phoenix Rising left the field on Saturday, there was an element of frustration at the chances that had been left on the table.
While fingers were pointed at the lack of quality finishing, that only tells a part of the story. Over the course of Rising’s season, the problems have gone deeper into how the attack functions.
Rising currently leads USL Championship in shots taken by quite some margin. Not all shots, however, are born equal.
“I think that we’ve been settling a lot,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “When our wingers were getting the ball, they were holding onto it too long. They were cutting inside every time, and then they were getting shots blocked. They were taking shots from 25, 30 yards out, which are low-percentage in the first place.”
There are tools to calculate the quality of the opportunities created. Expected Goals, frequently abbreviated as xG, assigns a value to each particular shot, based on its likelihood of ending up in the net. A variety of factors, including location of the shot and presence of defenders, all influence any given shot’s xG value.
There are different models to calculate xG. However, according to the Opta data primarily used by USL, Phoenix currently sits last in the league in average xG per shot at around 0.08. That means that while Rising takes more shots than anybody else in the Championship, the quality of those chances is typically poor.
A large part of that is Rising’s increasing tendency to shoot from distance. Rising’s share of shots from outside of the penalty area is the seventh-highest in the Championship. Only two teams who shoot more frequently from outside of the box — Sacramento Republic and Memphis 901 — could claim to have had any success this year. Both of those teams have performed far better defensively than Phoenix Rising, according to their opponents’ xG.
This isn’t necessarily a new issue for Phoenix Rising, although it is the worst manifestation of it. In 2019, which was Schantz’s first year in charge, Rising’s xG per shot was 0.13. In each year since, it has declined.
Over the course of the season, with the sheer volume of shots, Rising has still found its opportunities to hit the back of the net. At 28.87, its total xG places it in the top half of the league. Rising has actually converted 29 chances so far, so its xG has served as a solid predictor of goalscoring. You could argue, then, the finishing hasn’t been poor, even if it hasn’t excelled either.
Saturday’s match against Sacramento marked a departure from that. Rising created chance after chance but simply couldn’t bury one.
“This particular game, we challenged all of them to get to the endline before they took a shot,” Schantz said. “We also challenged the number 10s, if one of them drops back to receive the ball, somebody has to stay in the half-space which I thought Koze [Donasiyano] was fantastic. Then, with our 9s, it was really selfless running into the penalty area to draw the center-backs with them.”
In recent games, Rising has appeared to move back to a more aggressive press, and that too is fuelling better chance creation.
“A lot of the good chances that we created over the years have come from our defending and the way we defend, and how we defend in a forward mentality,” Schantz said. “If you defend that way and you create turnovers and opportunities, theoretically your players are closer to the goal. The idea is one quick forward pass and you’re in a better chance to get a good opportunity.
“I think that’s been our problem this year. Every time we’ve lost the ball, the other team has been able to get all the way down to our half. Our defensive transition, there was no counter-pressing, and I think we see a big change in that now.”
Over halfway through the year, Rising is refreshing its front three slightly. JJ Williams has arrived from Tulsa, with Marcus Epps departing to make room for him. Will that push Hurst further out onto the wing? Will Lamin Jawneh feature heavily in weeks going forward? These are questions that may take time — quickly fleeting time, at that — to decipher answers for.
But if Rising wants to turn its season around, the message is clear. An improvement in finishing likely won’t be enough; the chance creation needs to be better too.