Phoenix Rising at midseason: Experts weigh in on expectations, challenges

Santi Moar has been involved in 30% of the Rising’s goals and is considered by many the team’s MVP so far this season. (File photo by Nickolas Cooney/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising FC’s 2021 USL season has reached the midpoint with no shortage of headlines.

From a new stadium and training facility at Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino on the Gila River Indian Reservation to a roster overhaul, it has been a season of adjustments for the club.

It all comes as the Rising seek a return to the USL Championship game, which is where the team was headed last October as Western Conference champions before a COVID-19 outbreak among the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Rowdies led to the cancellation of the finale.

At the midpoint, the Rising sit atop the Western Conference’s Pacific Division,11 points ahead of second-place Orange County, which has played one more game than Phoenix. Although Rising FC sits in a comfortable position in the division race, there is still plenty at stake. If Phoenix can capture the No.1 seed in the playoffs, it would host every playoff game it plays, including the USL Championship match should Rising advance that far.

Cronkite News asked media members who cover Rising FC for some thoughts on the first half of the season and on what might lie ahead in the season’s second half.

Whom we asked:

Jake Anderson of Arizona Sports 98.7 and KTAR 92.3. Host of Up Rising Podcast. He is in his fourth season covering the club.

Owain Evans, freelance reporter/photographer covering all things soccer in the Valley. He has covered Rising for more than three years.

Juan Urresti, Spanish play-by-play voice at La Mejor 106.5 1400. Host of 90+Rising radio and video show. He is in his third season covering the club.

What has been the biggest learning point for Rising so far this season?

Anderson: “I think more and more teams are starting to play the ‘Don’t lose versus Phoenix’ tactic in which the opponent sits back and forces Rising to try and break them down, with chances of hitting (Rising) on the counter. If you don’t allow Phoenix to get into transitional moments, you take away Rising’s most dangerous weapon. Easier said than done, but (Rising) needs a counter punch to that tactic is what we’ve learned this far in 2021.”

Evans: “Home field is remarkably important, and that remains the case despite many of the struggles of last season’s COVID protocols no longer being present. Rising hasn’t yet lost a game at home this year, and has picked up 80% of available points. Compare that figure to road games, where the club has taken just 57%. That shows just how important it is to secure as high a seed as possible. Rising’s aim is always the league title – the team feels built for that sole purpose year after year – so it’s worth remembering that with a tight race for top spot, any given game could make a huge difference come the end of the season.”

Urresti: “When Rising fails to score first in a game, it becomes really hard for them to come back. It is something that can be worked on, however. We saw an improvement in the game against New Mexico United coming back from a 0-1 at half-time.”

Who has been the midseason MVP for you? Why?

Anderson: “This one could go to a number of guys. I’m going to have to go with the combo of Aodhan Quinn and Kevon Lambert because of the consistency in which they play as well as the amount of minutes their legs already have on them this season. And (in) the one game neither started? We all saw how that went (a 3-1 loss at Oakland).”

Evans: “Without doubt, Arturo Rodriguez. As I said before the start of the season, the youngster needed to step up to the challenge of playing Championship football this year. He’s done that, and then some. He’s leading the team in passing accuracy, despite playing in an advanced position up the field. He’s tied for second in assists. All that’s really lacking from him is for a few of those shots to go in to get his tally above one on the year. If he can do that, with his fairly unpredictable playing style that adds no shortage of spark, I think he’s well on his way to establishing himself at an even higher level.”

Urresti: “Santi Moar, the Spaniard has been involved in 30% of Rising’s goals. He is a threat to the opposite team and his nine goals and four assists makes him the MVP so far, statistically and in performance.”

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What has been the biggest highlight of the season for the club?

Anderson: “Pulling level at the death against San Diego down 2-0 with 90+1’ and 90+7’ minute goals from Santi Moar and Joey Calistri, respectively, to continue the unbeaten streak at Wild Horse Pass, which is now 8W-3D-0L.”

Evans: “I’m going to greedily pick three – the times that Rising found a goal in the 90th minute or later to secure a better result on the night. That would be the draws against San Diego and Orange County, and the win over New Mexico United. Battling until the end might be a cliché, but this Rising team has shown its ability to do it time and time again.”

Urresti: “Arturo Rodríguez has been phenomenal so far this season. He brings a whole new energy to the game with his talent.”

What adjustments does Rising need to do to have a good end of the season?

Anderson: “In addition to the aforementioned counter punch, Phoenix must also improve its form on the road in order to clinch home-field advantage. Of Rising’s remaining 12 games, seven are on the road – including a three-game road trip in a week at Tacoma, at Los Dos and at OC.”

Evans: “The biggest adjustment is going to be working Darren Mattocks into the squad. We’ve seen these last few weeks that while David Egbo has undoubtedly got potential, he isn’t quite what Rising needs in its starting striker. It’s been a month since we’ve seen a genuine center-forward score for Rising, and the pressure is going to be on Mattocks to buck that trend.”

Urresti: “Darren Mattocks has to get ready and involved tactically in a short time (after the Rising transferred forward Rufat Dadashov August 12). Since Rufat’s departure, it seems that there is a big hole in the roster and the less time it takes him to become available and play for 90’ minutes the better it will be for Rising.”

Rising’s biggest challenger is…

Anderson: “El Paso, for both Western Conference home-field advantage and possibly a rematch of last year’s WCF. Mark Lowry’s teams have always defended well and been tactically sound in Locomotive’s back-to-back WCF appearances in the first two years of existence.”

Evans: “I don’t think that there is anybody in the division who will challenge Rising in anything other than a one-off game. The challenge is outside of the division, and the fight for home field advantage through the playoffs. El Paso are level on points with Rising plus have a game in hand, and the two leaders out east are just a single point behind. Knowing the small margins come playoff time and the atmosphere created at Wild Horse Pass, that could make a huge difference.”

Urresti: “El Paso Locomotive is on a great performance now and with one game behind they have the same points as Rising on top of the conference and league. There hasn’t been a game against Locomotive yet and it could be a conference final game the first time they see each other.”

Where do you predict Rising will end up at the end of the season? Do they get the No. 1 overall seed in the USL?

Anderson: “I do not, simply because of the gauntlet of road games Phoenix has to play, including twice away to OC. I still think Rising wins the Pacific Division, but El Paso, Louisville and Tampa Bay will also be competing for the No. 1 spot in the USL Championship.”

Evans: “Anything less than a division title, given the current standings, would be a calamitous collapse. Seeding as it relates to other division winners is the complicating factor, not least as Rising won’t face a single one of its challengers. I think this side has what it takes to secure the top seed, but with each division putting up a legitimate candidate, it’s simply too close to call at the moment.”

Urresti: “They will end up at the top. Rising has one of the best and more complete rosters in the league. With the addition of Jamaica National Team striker Darren Mattocks to its already loaded lineup, it could be just a matter of time to lift the USL title for the first time.”

Edwin Perez Ed-WIN Per-ez (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Edwin Perez expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Perez, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and AIA, graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in Spanish. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.