Delayed 72 hours due to COVID concerns, Phoenix Rising (6-4-0) heads to Albuquerque for a match on Tuesday, May 24 (6 p.m. on Bally Sports Arizona Extra), to take on New Mexico United at the University of New Mexico Soccer Complex.
Since spending a week in Phoenix for its regular-season (April 16) and U.S. Open Cup (April 20) matches vs. Rising, New Mexico United (3-2-4) has gone 1-1-2. Its victory came, 2-0, in Charleston to the Battery while its loss was to San Antonio, 1-0, at home. Sandwiched between those matches were two draws, 0-0 at Sacramento and 1-1 at home against San Diego.
“New Mexico has Kalen Ryden back,” said Rising head coach Rick Schantz. “So, they’ve changed a bit since we saw them last. They’ve been playing with a back four at times. They’ve been rotating into a diamond four too. New Mexico is a little like us right now. They’re trying to figure out their identity. They’ll be extremely motivated because they lost both games here. I’m sure payback is on their mind.”
Rising has gone 2-2-0 since parting ways with United in April – winning at home vs. Miami and San Antonio but losing in Los Angles and at home against Tampa Bay in wholesale fashion last weekend.
“We had a meeting to remind everyone what are values are here,” said Schantz about the club’s 5-1 loss to Tampa. “We talked about what it means to play for Phoenix Rising and they came out to training ready to go. There are injured players that are trying their very best. They’re trying to do everything they can and hopefully we can get some of those guys back and move forward.”
Against Tampa, Rising was missing, among others, key defenders James Musa and Kevon Lambert, as well as midfielder Aodhan Quinn who, despite missing time still ranks second in the league in chances created with 28.
“We’ve set such a high bar over the past five years, for us to play like we did last time out, it wasn’t enough,” said Schantz. “The guys understand that. As far as where it went wrong, we had three turnovers that led directly to goals. Defensive transition was our biggest problem. We dropped off. We let them run at us. [Tampa] have some very good players. They exposed us.
We have to understand that in order to win games, we need to get back to being aggressive. We need to press and cause turnovers. If we can’t do that, we need to recognize when to get into our mid-block or low block and stay compact and show some discipline.”
Through 10 matches this season, Rising has lost a total of 27 player matches to injury. Most notably, the club’s defensive leader Musa, who logged the most minutes of any player in 2021, has missed nine of 10. Lambert’s transition from defensive midfield to center back plugged the hole for a while – helping Phoenix to reduce its goals-allowed-per match average from three in March to 0.60 across all competitions in April. But with both out last match, Rising’s defense allowed five goals for the first time since a 2-5 loss at Las Vegas in October 2018. Despite the adversity Rising has faced this season, the club remains just two wins off the pace of first place Colorado Springs (8-1-0, 24 points).
“It’s a puzzle every season,” said Schantz. “You’ve got your pieces and you’ve got to figure out how to put it all together to have a winning formula. Sometimes it takes longer than others. We haven’t been in this situation. I don’t plan on getting used to this. That’s not how we think here. We cannot get used to this and it is not acceptable. Teams used to fear playing Phoenix Rising. We’ve got to get that back.”