Versatility the key for newest Rising player, Liverpool import Corey Whelan

Corey Whelan of Liverpool during a training session on February 14, 2019 in Marbella, Spain. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

TEMPE – Liverpool product Corey Whelan may be a new player for Phoenix Rising, but he’s expected to solve a problem that’s been there for a while for coach Rick Schantz.

“From the beginning, we’ve always wanted to have four center backs, mostly for training and competition,” Schantz said. “It took a little while, but Corey was a guy that we identified over a long period of time and we knew that once the window closed in the winter, we’d have to wait until summer. When this one opened up, he was ready to come.”

The 21-year-old, who spent his entire loan period with Crewe Alexandra of Sky Bet League Two last season, playing on the right rather than in the middle, brings positional flexibility with him. Of his eight starts with Liverpool’s U-23 team, half of them came from a more central position, while also appearing at left back against Germany and Kosovo for the Irish under 21s.

“Growing up in Liverpool, he was a center-midfielder,” Schantz said, “transitioned to right-back I think in the under 23s, but he played at center-back as well.

“So what we brought him in for is because he’s so versatile, and he can play a lot of different positions. So when you’ve got yellow card accumulation coming, when you have another international break in October, you’ve got all these different things that you have to deal with, it’s nice to be able to have four center backs.”

This versatility was also played up in a statement released by Rising general manager Bobby Dulle, who cited Whelan’s “experience with Liverpool and ability to play multiple positions” as the most important elements that Whelan will bring to the team.

Whelan first appeared on Phoenix’s radar not due to the scouting staff, but instead by positive relations between owners on both sides of the pond. David Stearns and ex-Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy – both part of Rising’s 15-person ownership group – have been the key figures behind that link with the Anfield bosses.

“We’ve been talking about this since the offseason,” Schantz said. “Those guys went over and watched the Champions League final. They got to know the technical director a little bit, talked to the academy director and it was really just fact-finding to learn about how they do things, because eventually we would like to be that kind of club, that big.”

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According to Schantz, a couple of players from Liverpool were presented to Rising, and Whelan impressed enough to have Phoenix chasing for his signature.

“He’s very good with his feet,” Schantz said, “a good passer of the ball, plays out of the back extremely well, so I think he’s going to give us an added element.”

Despite his signing being made official on Monday, Whelan is not yet in the country while his visa is being processed. Schantz said that the club is confident that he will be cleared by the authorities later this week, meaning he could be in the Valley as early as next week.

When he does make it to the Valley, he will have to adapt to triple-digit temperatures, leading Schantz to joke that Whelan “probably should have come in the winter.”

Yet he won’t be expected to spend any time in Tucson before contributing to the efforts of the first team.

“He’ll be with us right away,” Schantz said, “but we’ve got to get him accustomed to the weather, and then accustomed to the way we play.”

In a club statement, Whelan said that he is “excited to get there now and meet the lads, staff, supporters and people of Phoenix.”

He’ll be joining a team that is on a nine-game win streak – just one shy of the USL record of 10 set by FC Cincinnati last season.

Rising’s next game will be against Austin Bold at Casino Arizona Field on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

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