Thanks to a season-opening clash with Monterey Bay, Phoenix Rising will participate in a club’s first-ever USL Championship match for the second straight year.
Facing an expansion team is a challenge beyond the usual. While established teams can benefit from better chemistry, the mystery of a new opponent can be hard to deal with.
“You really just focus on yourself, you know, focus on what we do best,” Rising captain Darnell King said. “I think our coaching staff does a really great job of getting us the info we need, and then it comes down to us the players to do what we have to do to get the W.”
Finding those insights on expansion teams is no small task. Information may be forthcoming on players, but a lack of access to preseason games can hide a team’s tactical approach.
That leads to coaching staffs finding alternative methods to gather intel.
“I can’t give you all the details, but we’ve got people going to Monterey, watching things,” coach Rick Schantz said. “We’ve got people all over the West Coast looking and talking to players and people. We do have to figure out everything that we can so that we can be prepared tactically, technically and psychologically for the match.”
Schantz confirmed that he had received information on the California club’s last friendly, a match against Sacramento Republic. However, a string of absences in the lineup make the value of that knowledge doubtful.
Other factors can come into play. Monterey Bay coach Frank Yallop is the former Rising coach the who brought Schantz to the pros as his assistant. Edward “Lalo” Delgado also played for Yallop while with Las Vegas Lights.
“He came in a very difficult situation,” Delgado said. “We just had our head coach fired, and then he came to finish off the season with Vegas. Personally, he was a great human being outside of the pitch, and as a coach he stepped up and did what he could in that very unique situation. I have nothing bad to say against him.
“I know he’s going to want to start off the year right, especially with the inaugural game, so I know they’re going to come with a lot of motivation and determination. He has some history here, so he’s for sure wanting to get a result.”
Former Rising striker Chris Cortez is also part of the Monterey Bay squad and could suit up for a match in Arizona for the first time since the 2018 Western Conference semifinal.
“I hope Chris feels like it was the best place that he’s ever been, and he wants to be nice and not score goals, or fake an injury and not play,” Schantz joked. “That would be nice. I would appreciate it Chris if he did that.”
While information might be hard to come by, Rising’s coach still feels he has somewhat of a handle on the opposition.
“Sam Gleadle’s playing on the right,” Schantz said. “He’s very athletic, very fast. Chase Boone plays on the left. They’ve got Seku Conneh up front. There’s Chris Cortez up front. They can rotate any one of three giants as a striker. They’ve got a decent 10 and then two holding midfielders and a back four. Their two center-backs, Hugh Roberts and Kai Greene, are very good, both very athletic.”
With that information to hand, now the task is finding a way to counter the opponent.
“I think where we might be able to expose them is when they have the ball,” Schantz said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank is a little bit direct against us, tries to turn us around a bit, tries to bully us, a little physical.
“You never know. Frank’s a really good coach and a really smart guy. He’s got a good team. A lot of veterans. They’re not going to come in here and be afraid of us, so we have to be prepared.”
A cloud of mystery still remains. Whether from scouting or past links, can the team truly trust their intel enough to forge a game plan off it?
“I mean yeah, to an extent, but you’ve always got to be open-minded,” Delgado said. “You really don’t know what you’re going to expect. All you know is that like every other team in the league, every time they step into the stadium they want to get a result. We just have to worry about ourselves and know our identity and make sure that we show that out on the field.”