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The Vegas effect: Rising prepared for Lights' distractions, gimmicks

Owain Evans Avatar
March 19, 2022

In some ways, Phoenix Rising’s preparation for its first away game of the season is just like any other.

“They should be similar to last year,” Rising winger Joey Calistri said of opponents Las Vegas Lights. “It’s a younger team that’s full of energy, ready to go forward. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to match that energy on the road. It’s obviously the first road trip of the year, so we’re going to have to make sure we’re focused the whole couple of days leading up to the game.”

In other ways, it couldn’t be further from usual.

Saturday’s opposition has long employed a variety of gimmicks to market its club. These range from a series of bizarre ticket giveaways and half-time entertainment to strange antics alongside the field during the match.

In October, Rising won a 6-3 thriller away at Cashman Field. A series of mattresses sat within yards of the touchline to serve as the Lights’ equivalent to field seats. A cornhole tournament was also taking place within similar proximity to play.

“I think from a league-wide perspective, they should be concerned about the safety,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said after that match. “If a player runs off and trips on one of these mattresses or kiddie pools, or those cornhole games are made of wood and there’s sticks that are sticking up out of the ground. You never know, and I would hate for anything serious to happen to anybody.”

After a match earlier that season that ended in a draw, Schantz wasn’t quiet about his displeasure with some of Vegas’ gimmicks.

“We got a point on the road in a difficult environment with kiddie pools on the sidelines and people running on the field, so I’m alright,” he said. “We’ll take it.”

Now Rising is looking to take the field surrounded by the bizarre uncertainty once again.

“For the returning players, it’s not much of a problem,” Schantz said this week. “They all understand. For the newer guys, they’ll see it in film a little bit from last year. We’ll talk about it.”

One of those returning players is Calistri, who found himself on the scoresheet for Rising’s last clash in Nevada.

“Most of the guys have been around the block,” Calistri said. “I think it doesn’t matter what atmosphere we’re going into.

“Cashman, you never know what you’re going to get there. They always have a bags tournament or the llamas out or something going on that might be intended to distract you, but I think with the team we’ve got and the character we’ve got within our team, nothing should throw us off our game.”

Calistri took full advantage of Vegas’ gimmicks in the sides’ last meeting, celebrating his goal by running straight over to the nearby cornhole game.

“I think it’s kind of fun going into different atmospheres,” Calistri said. “You feel like they’re trying to do some things that throw off the opponent and make them forget that it’s a game day. But it’s fun for me because it’s still 90 minutes of soccer. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing outside the field. You can put whatever you want on the sidelines, we’re still going to be ready to go.”

The distractions go beyond the stadium, though. As with other USL teams all season, Rising is bringing a group of young men to a casino hotel in a city that is arguably the party capital of the country.

“For this first trip, right after the game we’ll be driving right back to Phoenix,” Schantz said. “That takes away that, maybe anyone that might have been looking forward to having a night out in Vegas.

“Game day minus one is usually really packed with a lot of stuff. As soon as we get there, we stretch. We do an activation just to get the legs moving again. There’s a team meal in the hotel, treatments with the trainer. There’s small group film, and then they’re in bed. For us, the trick to keep them focused on the road is not too much down time, but when there is down time, making sure that they’re doing the right things.”

According to Calistri, the risk of distraction from the task at hand on this trip is minimal.

“Again, it just comes back to us being experienced,” the winger said. “We’re not there to go out to the casino or do anything else except to come back with three points. We know that. We have much higher goals to achieve this year, and in order to do that we have to be focused. That’s never been an issue with this group so I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Despite all the gimmicks and distractions, Rising’s coach insists the team is focused on its game play for the trip to Vegas.

“When we go into these type of environments, the first thing I say is that the solution is to be the best Phoenix Rising we can be, and then we’ll be OK,” Schantz said. “We don’t try to change a lot.”

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