For the first time in his career, Phoenix Rising FC interim manager Blair Gavin is preparing for a road playoff match at the helm of his club.
PRFC will travel to northwest Nevada to take on Reno 1868 FC in Saturday night’s Western Conference semifinal.
Another first for Gavin this season will be an away trip to Reno despite Phoenix having lost to 2-1 to 1868 FC back on Aug. 29. That’s because the then-assistant coach was taking coronavirus precautions for his pregnant wife, who has since delivered their newborn.
His only road trip this season was in San Diego on Sept. 30, which coincidentally resulted in Gavin being given the interim tag.
Looking ahead to the matchup itself, Reno (36 points) is the only team in the league to have more points than Phoenix (35 points) and is the No. 1 overall seed in the 2020 USL Championship playoffs.
The two sides are also No. 1 and 2 in scoring goals, as Rising FC led the league with 46, followed by Reno’s 43. Now compare that to the Eastern Conference — who failed to have one team score 40 goals — and the rest of the Western Conference, who only had two other teams reach the 30-goal mark.
“The way (Reno) play is challenging because they’ll go man-to-man all over the field, they’ll put pressure on you, they’ll press high and they’re really good in transitional moments,” Gavin told reporters via Zoom on Tuesday. “So they’re a team that stays in the game for 90 minutes and have a lot of players that can hurt you on the attacking side.”
Following the last match between the two sides, manager Rick Schantz — who has since been put on administrative leave by PRFC — said he would have done things differently if they were to play again. The most notable change without question will be the absence of 2020 USLC Golden Boot winner Junior Flemmings, who still has four more games left on his six-game suspension.
In Rising’s 2-1 defeat to Reno nearly seven weeks ago, Schantz deployed a pace-centric starting trio in Santi Moar, Flemmings and Solomon Asante. Rufat Dadashov — the team’s only true No. 9 — would come on for Moar in the 64th minute and bag the equalizer in the 77th minute before Phoenix allowed the match-winner just two minutes later.
Obviously with Flemmings being out for the remainder of the playoffs, Gavin will presumably deploy a starting attacking trio of Moar, Dadashov and Asante for the third consecutive match.
“A lot of the strategy throughout the week that we’re trying to build is once again starting fast and trying to put the game in our terms from a pressing perspective,” Gavin said. “Obviously Rufat is a big component of that and our wingers and our midfielders and how we create separation from their man-to-man organization.
“So a lot of the emphasis is on the third man and how we can create space and how we can get it into a situation where our players can face forward and create some overloads.”
Defensively, Phoenix will have a new look for Reno as well. Last time out, Rising’s backline consisted of Darnell King, A.J. Cochran, Corey Whelan and Joey Calistri.
But in both of PRFC’s last two matches, the starting back four has been King, Cochran, Joey Farrell and Whelan. Unless center back Damion Lowe — who picked up a lower-body injury against San Diego — is able to start, I would expect to see the exact same starting XI from Gavin for the second straight week.
“Damion’s still in that recovering process,” Gavid said. “He’s getting fitter and stronger each day, gaining confidence of his teammates and confidence of the staff. So that’s something we monitor closely and we’ll evaluate as we get closer to the game.”
Whether or not Lowe plays is going to have a massive impact on Phoenix’s chances of advancing and reclaiming homefield advantage for the rest of the postseason, including hosting the USL Championship Final at Casino Arizona Field.
That’s largely in part to Reno’s attacking duo of Corey Hertzog (7 goals) and Foster Langsdorf (11 goals), who have combined for 18 of 1868 FC’s 43 goals on the year (41.9%). Compare that to the likes of Dadashov, who was tied for third with Langsdorf for the Golden Boot.
“It’s imperative the communication between our backline and our defensive midfielder to where (Hertzog) is at and also if we can get pressure on the opponent higher up the field. We’re hoping the play gets a little bit more predictable for us,” Gavin explained. “Reno is at their best when they push their fullbacks high, they get a lot of numbers on the backline and they have a lot of rotation between the front line and the inverted wingers. Ideally, we can sniff that out, but it’s a really solid team and we’re just going to have to make sure that the communication piece is apparent throughout the match.
“(Langsdorf) holds the front line really well. He and Hertzog have a great relationship where they can rotate because Hertzog is familiar with the front line and Langsdorf can drop underneath. They really try and cause you stress by someone stepping into the midfield and opens up space for a guy to run through. (Langsdorf’s) ability in the box to create space is pretty unique. So when they have the attacking-minded fullbacks like they do and serving balls in and you have Langsdorf and Hertzog in the box, you better be prepared to be tight with those guys.”