After a slow start to preseason on Wednesday, Rising picked up its first win of 2023 with a comprehensive 5-2 victory over Grand Canyon University.
New signings Federico Varela, Manuel Arteaga and Emil Cuello all notched their first goals in preparation for the new year, as Rising ran a separate lineup for each half of the match.
Varela shows off abilities
Some Rising fans have seemed nervous this offseason. Amid a significant rebuild of the team, many new faces arrived that appeared as relative unknowns to Phoenix supporters.
One of those players is Federico Varela. The Argentinian midfielder had a track record of playing in solid European leagues, but not those that would be watched religiously by fans in the United States.
Varela did well to dispel some of that concern as Rising took on GCU. After falling behind 1-0, it was his run along the byline from the left-hand side that set up the equalizer. Fifteen minutes later, his curling effort found the top corner to put Phoenix up 2-1.
“It helps him with confidence,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said after the match. “The more we play, the more we’re going to keep seeing things from each individual.”
Varela’s contribution to the first half went beyond just his goal and assist, however. Taking corners from both the left and right side, his deliveries were menacing and dropped into dangerous locations. He moved from side to side with ease behind the front line, and his movement and touches seemed purposeful at all times.
In his first showing in a Rising jersey that we could watch, Verela appeared much more polished than his predecessor Arturo Rodriguez. Perhaps that lends hope that the internal hype around his signing could yet prove justified.
Lambert slips back onto defense
Facing GCU, Rising’s Kevon Lambert slipped back into a position in the defensive back three. While it isn’t unheard of for the Jamaican to play as a defender, he has more frequently performed as a midfielder in Rising colors.
“The good thing about Kev is that he’s so versatile,” Guerra said. “The way that we play, he could play multiple positions. He could play anywhere in the back. He could play in the midfield. If we play with a back four, he could also play in the back. It gives you so much flexibility.”
Rising sources have previously hinted at tensions between the club, which under former coach Rick Schantz saw Lambert primarily as a defensive midfielder, while the Jamaican national team set-up preferred him as a center-back.
While Guerra didn’t commit to a specific plan for Lambert in the upcoming season, he did hint about more options for him in a defensive spot.
“The more games that we play, and the more training sessions that we give him in the back shows how much more comfortable he’s becoming and how good he can become,” the coach said. “He can become elite. When I talk about elite, I’m not just talking about MLS. I’m talking internationally, center-back level.
“He’s still young. You’ve seen his athleticism. Now you’re seeing how comfortable he’s getting on the ball with the game in front of him.”
Early signs of chemistry building
While the first half of the match could accurately be described as the Federico Varela show, the second half felt more balanced between different players.
Eddie Munjoma, attacking out of the left wing-back position, seemed to slot in well around his new teammates. The most impressive showing of chemistry in the attack, however, came from Emil Cuello and Manuel Arteaga. Despite limited time playing together, both seemed to be on each other’s wavelength, generating several chances.
Building chemistry had been one of the key points raised by Guerra in midweek when asked about the team’s upcoming preseason work.
“It’s fun to watch,” he said of Cuello and Arteaga after facing GCU. “We want to make sure that we bring in pieces that when you put the puzzle together, they can connect with each other. It’s part of the process that we adopted in the offseason, and when you see those pieces coming together with the identity that we want to adopt, it’s fun. It’s fun for us.”
Trialist makes scoresheet
With Rising looking to round out its 25-man squad, and with Danny Trejo and Erickson Gallardo sidelined out of concern over minor injuries, several trialists took the field against GCU.
One of those — playing up front in the opening half — found himself burying a tap-in opportunity after Varela knocked the ball across the face of goal.
Beyond trialists, the Rising’s academy also had representation on the field, just as there was against Colorado Springs on Wednesday.
“If they’re here, it’s because they deserved it and they earned it,” Guerra said. “We have to make sure that when we put them in, we protect them. We give them the tools that they need in order to stay successful and do well with us, because we want to make sure that we don’t break them or burn them.”
Against GCU, defender Santi Hanus represented the club’s youth in defense, and turned in a solid performance in the second half of play. “Santi has been great,” Guerra said. “You guys saw what Liam [Mullins] did the other day [scoring against Colorado Springs]. Santi plays 45 today with the majority of Phoenix Rising players that are pros, and he does a good job. I hope that, little by little, we can keep adding academy guys to our games.”