Your best ability is your availability is the old saying. But what about versatility?
Well, for Phoenix Rising FC’s Corey Whelan, he has both.
The 6-foot, 22-year-old can play a multitude of positions, including all four spots in the back line and serve as a defensive or holding midfielder.
“Wow that’s tough. I’m not sure,” manager Rick Schantz said of where he would put Whelan if he had a perfect starting XI. “What I like about him the most is he can play one of five positions and plays very well. I love his composure on the ball. His individual defending is very good, he’s surprisingly fast, good in the air.
“Solo (Asante) doesn’t really come inside and when we play Santi (Moar) on the right, he’s right-footed and he likes to stay wide, so you need more of a traditional fullback. When we moved Corey out there, the idea was we’d probably get a little bit stronger defensively and we’d get better in the air.”
Even Whelan isn’t exactly sure what to call himself positionally.
“It’s a really difficult question and it should be easy I feel like, especially because I should know where I feel most comfortable,” he said. “But honestly the two (positions: center back and right back) I’ve been playing of late don’t seem too dissimilar to me. I know they entitle different things.
“So to put my finger on one position is hard, but I do honestly feel comfortable wherever I play. … Honestly it’s hard to answer. If I was going to answer, I’d probably say as a right center back but I enjoy right back equally as much and I’ve enjoyed playing there the last couple of weeks. And if it’s something that they want me to continue to do then I’m going to enjoy that challenge.”
After arriving from Liverpool in August 2019, it took the former LFC U-23 captain a little bit to get acclimated to the Valley’s blistering heat in the summer.
“I’ve gotten a little bit used to it to be honest. It’s gotten better as the months have gone on and I’ve adapted to it,” Whelan said.
“Last year when I first came out here, I really struggled with it to be fair. I don’t think I ever got to grips with the heat and stuff. … But now I feel my body has adjusted to it.”
But once Whelan got his legs underneath him, he quickly found himself as one of Schantz’s regulars in his starting XI.
This season, Whelan has been one of the first names Schantz has put down on the teamsheet, if not the first. In fact, the 22-year-old has played more minutes (1,079) than any other player on the team and is one of only four players to have started all 12 matches in 2020. Not even the defending MVP and Golden Boot winner captain Solomon Asante can claim that feat.
Whelan also leads PRFC with 613 total passes (sixth-most in Western Conference), passing percentage (88.6%), long pass percentage (65.6%) and is tied with Jon Bakero for the team lead in long passes at 96.
Defensively, Whelan’s 15 interceptions on the 2020 campaign only trail midfielder Kevon Lambert, who leads the club with 23. Whelan is also third on the team with 25 clearances.
Collectively, that has allowed Phoenix Rising to be the fifth-best defense in the Western Conference at 13 goals allowed. PRFC also only has three clean sheets on the year, which ranks seventh in the conference compared to San Diego Loyal SC and Orange County SC, who are both tied for second in the West with five shutouts on the year.
Why is that metric so important?
Phoenix only has four matches remaining in the 2020 regular season. Of those, the next three are at home against San Diego, at home against Orange County and then away to Loyal SC.
And despite those defensive numbers, it’s LA Galaxy II who currently sits in second place and the final playoff spot in USL Championship’s Group B. PRFC finishes the regular season with a home contest against Los Dos.
“That’s something we’ve got to learn from going into the next four games is that there’s no given that the three points are going to be there for you every Saturday,” Whelan said when asked if the next four matches were a playoff tuneup.
“You’ve got to go out and earn the right to play and you’ve got to compete and challenge for three points and it’s not going to be easy, we know that. Three points on Saturday will be massive. … Phoenix aren’t a team that look to win one out of four games. We want to win all four games and send a statement out to the league to say going into playoffs we’ve hit the ground running.”