If you had to find two things that rarely go together, you could do worse than picking Phoenix Rising and patience. But after a rougher-than-usual spell to open the season, patience is exactly what Rising fans are being asked to display.
“It’s the 13th game of the season,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said after a 1-0 loss to Birmingham on June 4. “Our fans aren’t used to this, and neither am I, and I’m sorry for that. But we still have, what, 20 games left? 21 games left?
“It’s hard to say because for many years at Phoenix Rising the season is just all smiles and goals and three points every week, and you just have to get hot at the right time. We have a lot of work to do and all we have to do is put our heads down and keep improving every weekend.”
The problem is that Rising fans’ patience appears to be wearing thin.
One thing that doesn’t help is the insistence that certain performances are good, as Schantz did on Twitter the day after the last match. Yes, there is nuance to these discussions. Rising did do some things very well in its last outing, but can you really describe it as approaching a complete performance?
And to suggest after a 3-0 loss to LA Galaxy II that there are serious positives to take away? Sometimes, a little reading of the room wouldn’t go amiss.
Then there’s the departure of Jonathan Levin. In some ways, Levin’s departure is a strange spark for discontent among the fanbase. He was never someone set to be a star, nor even one of the first options off the bench.
The funny thing about sport is that you don’t always need to win on the field to win off of it. Levin’s demeanor — always smiling, always willing to talk — made him a fan favorite. The fact that he helped out a fan to buy a season ticket only cemented his place in the community.
Levin’s departure, and the nature and timing of it, ruffled some feathers. Schantz said that Levin was treated well. Social media shows that even his players wouldn’t back him unanimously on that.
Perhaps more grace would be forthcoming if Rising were performing well in the standings. Compared to the team’s usual standards, it is not. Rising sits in fifth place in the conference going into this weekend. This isn’t a team that sees simply making the playoffs as a successful season.
Rising has already surpassed its loss total from last season. This comes just 13 matches into the year, eight of which have taken place at home.
It is still early in the season, and there is time to turn things around. We live in a country where playoffs are king, and the assessment of winners and losers comes at the cruel hand of a knockout game at the end of a long year. But a solid track record of regular-season performance was used to shield the team from criticism after a first-round departure last year. Which is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it.
That gets into the crux of the issue for Rising. Again, this is a side that doesn’t tolerate mediocrity. Success on the field is almost as much a part of the club’s identity as anything else, and as fans grapple with their own concerns about the club’s post-pandemic direction, that success is one of the few things that is easy to single out when assessing blame.
Is it fair that frustration with decisions off the field is boiling over, leading to a lack of patience with performances on the field and fingers being pointed towards Rising’s coach? Perhaps not, but that is the nature of professional sport.
Therein lies the issue. It doesn’t take much searching online to find that some elements of Rising’s fan base are already starting to turn. That negativity is mostly contained to the internet for now, but it’ll spread. It’s just a matter of time.
It’s why it is so critical that Rising steadies the ship sooner rather than later. There’s only so long that a team can plod through the year, hoping that this weekend will signal the turnaround. That takes an emotional toll on the fans, and more of them will turn with each passing week. The question then doesn’t become if the stadium environment begins to feel that negativity, but when it will.
I’ve seen many coaches face off against potentially hostile support in years past. I saw it in one of my first years consistently reporting on a team, as Exeter City in England looked set for a battle to stay in the Football League. I’ve seen it repeatedly at Cardiff, and with Wales back in the days where tournament qualification was nothing but a pipe dream.
There’s a common theme running throughout: Once the criticism moves offline and the stadium environment starts to turn, it tends to take little less than a miracle to reverse that. Plodding through the season becomes ineffective, and solitary wins do little to quiet the discontent. Each passing week feels like a ticking time bomb, with the room to defuse it growing slimmer and slimmer.
It’s already clear that patience with Rising’s on-field showings has hit a low. A loss to El Paso — especially with some tougher road games on the horizon — could prove a tipping point.
Earlier this week, Schantz said that the route to victory was to focus on getting things right, without any fundamental change to the tactics and plans under the hood. None of us know for certain now whether that’s the right approach or not, but it needs to be tackled with a sense of urgency.
Without a change in the results very soon, a different kind of change could be on the horizon.