CHANDLER, Ariz. — Phoenix Rising FC’s preseason is officially over.
PRFC capped off its 2021 slate of friendlies on Saturday with the first two matches ever played in the new stadium at Wild Horse Pass against New Mexico United and FC Tucson.
Phoenix would split the games, losing 4-0 to the fellow USL Championship side before coming back to beat the League One club 2-1.
The performances really mirrored the entirety of Rising’s preseason as the club finished 2-0-10, with half those losses being to MLS’ Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake. Phoenix was supposed to travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders, but that match was canceled due to a false COVID-19 positive in Rising’s camp.
Against New Mexico on Saturday, PRFC followed its pattern of failing to score while also getting punished on turnovers and bad passes at the back. In Rising’s 12 preseason friendlies in 2021, Phoenix failed to score in half of them, with the NMU match being the only non-MLS side to hold PRFC scoreless.
“I think the biggest problem is that we got away from playing through lines,” manager Rick Schantz said. “We just started hitting long balls.
“We knew that they had two forwards and so the fullbacks were going to have time on the ball. When they got the ball and they came out to press, we didn’t play behind them, we played too negatively. And if you do that, you invite pressure and we made too many mistakes.”
“Still not sharp. You hope under the lights next week it’s a little bit different,” Schantz added. “I think we did some good things. Didn’t compete as well as I would’ve liked coming out of the locker room. Physically, I think we were a little bit — I wouldn’t say weak — just were a little late to everything today. Got (six) days to fix it.”
Defensively, Rising only managed to keep one clean sheet in those 12 matches. That shutout came in the second leg of two 75-minute games against Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Both teams were playing their second units, which isn’t to knock the achievement, but rather to highlight how deep and how much better PRFC’s “backups” are in comparison to the rest of the league.
“We’re good, we’re deep and what I’m most excited about is when we have to play a lot of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturdays, I won’t be afraid to change the team,” Schantz said.
Who Schantz picks for his starting XI come Matchday 1 on Friday night is something to watch out for due to injuries and inconsistent performances in preseason. And while I’d expect to see the majority of the 4-3-3 lineup against New Mexico United to face San Diego Loyal, there are a few positions that are yet to be solidified.
With 2020 starting goalkeeper Zac Lubin out indefinitely due to a lower-back strain, it looks like Andre Rawls will be starting in net for Phoenix this season.
Center back James Musa has been nursing a bilateral calf injury recently and only played 80 minutes against Tucson. Whenever Schantz deems the Kiwi to be fully match fit, he will be Rising’s rock in the center of the backline, as Musa brings the ability to possess the ball and break lines from the center back position.
The fullback spots also present potential position battles, as the likes of Ryan Flood and Noah Billingsley bring a slightly different skill set than that of Darnell King and Deklan Wynne.
While all four have the pace to run up the wing on overlapping and inverted runs, Flood and Billingsley’s physical presence (both over 6-foot tall) and power has been noticeable, especially when whipping balls in on crosses. King, who stands at 5-foot-8, was beaten in the air on a cross at the back post for New Mexico’s first goal of the game only seven minutes into the match.
Kevon Lambert and Aodhan Quinn will be the two constants in PRFC’s midfield trio this season, but the third to play that attacking midfield role may fluctuate between Jon Bakero and Arturo Rodriguez.
“I thought Jon Bakero in this performance (against Tucson) — they talked about it after the first game — I was in there with about eight or nine of the veterans,” Schantz said. “They had a real serious conversation about accountability and holding each other accountable on the field and don’t take it personally.
“He came out with really serious intentions and it spreads. That kind of attitude and behavior is what we need right now and it’ll spread through the whole locker room.”
And up top, well that’s where all the question marks have been. Where are all the goals going to come from after having lost the 2020 Golden Boot winner in Junior Flemmings?
“It has to be a competitive environment and every day at training they have to compete,” Schantz said. “I think right now some guys are getting close and other guys are lacking confidence. And then you have guys who are confident but aren’t really sharp, so all that stuff has to start clicking together.
“Historically, we’ve been fortunate enough to have one or two players that even when we’re not playing well, we could still break down an opponent and score a goal — and right now we just don’t have that.”
Having only scored 11 goals in 12 matches, the likes of back-to-back MVP Solomon Asante and No. 9 Rufat Dadashov will have to both step up if the captain wants to return to his 2019 form and assist tally that was aided by former PRFC striker Adam Jahn.
I expect Santi Moar to get the starting nod come Friday night despite coming on at halftime against his former club on Saturday. Remember, the Spaniard had a slow and unlucky start to 2020. But if Moar can regain the form he was in at the end of last season and during the playoffs, Schantz will be forced to play him.
Phoenix Rising’s starting XI:
— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) April 25, 2021
One bright spot for Phoenix’s attack this preseason has been new signee and backup striker Seyi Adekoya. In the last week, the forward has scored three goals in two matches — including both against Tucson Saturday night — which accounts for 27% of Rising’s scoring tally this preseason.
50’ | GOAL Phoenix Rising
Joey Calistri’s shot is deflected, but Seyi Adekoya is there for his brace.
— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) April 25, 2021
Rather than having a backup similar to Dadashov, Adekoya won’t be a like-for-like change and allows Schantz to change the focus of the attacking trio to be more pace-centric whenever the manager sees fit. Adekoya is faster and shorter than Dadashov, but the former UCLA Bruin makes up for the difference in height with strength and physical power.
“Seyi does best when he has no time and has to react and just finish,” Schantz said. “He’s so powerful, so fast, so aggressive. But he still has to learn our system and how we want to play and at this level it’s a little bit different. He’s played in environments where it’s probably not as aggressive, not as physical and a little bit more organized football, but I think he’s going to do OK.”
With the preseason finally over, Schantz and Co. can begin prepping for the 2021 USL Championship season opener on Friday against Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal, who Rising hasn’t technically been able to beat the last two times out. And just like PRFC, this is a pretty revamped San Diego side who made some offseason additions who “hate” Phoenix.
“I think this team is going to have to play with a lot of grit, a lot of determination and we’ll have to grind out some wins this year,” Schantz said. “But I think they understand it, we still have some coaching to do and I’m going to have to be a lot better this year.”
“I know the character our boys have. I know they will be ready. I will work tirelessly until we are at the standard our fans expect. It’s time to stop talking and start doing,” Schantz tweeted.
Schantz on if 16-year-old defender Niall Dunn could see time with the first team this season:
“I hope so, but we have to keep it quiet. We have him on an academy contract right now. He’s been spectacular. The boys love him. Very quiet, humble, hard-worker, but he’s so young. He still has a lot to learn. Good on the ball, athletic. He has the tools. He’s going to the U.S. youth national camp. I think he’s going to do very well.”
Phoenix Rising hosts San Diego Loyal on Friday at Wild Horse Pass Friday on ESPN 2.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and will be audio broadcast live on ArizonaSports.com and on the Arizona Sports app.