Phoenix Rising FC enters the 2020 USL Championship season as the defending regular-season champions and most consider them the favorites to repeat that honor to start the new decade.
Although Phoenix lost three players to MLS contracts during the offseason, the squad reloaded by re-signing a majority of last year’s record-setting starting XI. For good measure, they added solid USL starters like Jordan Schweitzer, Santi Moar, Darnell King, Owusu Kontor-Ansah, and Jack Barmby to compete for playing time. Then, Rising FC brought Rufat Dadashov and Roberto Alarcon Saeez from Europe to put the cherry on top of a ruthless offseason. With all these quality players coming in, Phoenix should be a shoo-in to top the Western Conference table in 2020. Right?
In the words of college football announcer Lee Corso, “Not so fast!”
Below are five reasons why I, a Phoenix Rising season ticket holder and co-host of the Rising as One podcast, do not believe Phoenix
Rising will not win the regular-season title in 2020, or even top the Western Conference table. Following that, I give you three reasons I think it may benefit Phoenix in the long run.
Five reasons why Phoenix will NOT repeat as regular-season champs
New Year, New Struggles
People generally assume that the USL’s strongest regular season teams should “keep that same energy” the following season. However, a dive into the numbers tells a different tale.
|Regular Season Winner
|Following Season Result
|Points Behind Ensuing Winner
|Rochester Rhinos (61 pts)
|(51 pts, T5/25 teams)
|NY Red Bulls II (69 pts)
|(44 pts, T15/30)
|Real Monarchs (67 pts)
|(60 pts, 6/33)
|FC Cincinnati (77 pts)
|*(24 pts, 24/24) *MLS
|Phoenix Rising FC (78 pts)
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Since the league expanded to 25 teams and two conferences for the 2015 season, each season’s regular-season winner has experienced a significant drop in form the following season. Each squad that stayed in USL made the playoffs the next season, but only Real Monarchs came close to maintaining its success the next year. Phoenix may be the strongest defending regular-season champ of this bunch on paper, but the numbers indicate that a drop in points and table finish is the most likely outcome for the Firebirds’ 2020 campaign.
Phoenix Lost Three Players to MLS
In a tribute to Phoenix’s 2019 depth, one can argue that none of the three players who left for MLS were the top two candidates for Team MVP. The top Rising MVP candidates in 2019 were Solomon Asante and Zac Lubin, and both have returned. Nevertheless, losing Adam Jahn, Amadou Dia, and James Musa hurts.
Jahn scored 17 goals and 7 assists as the club’s number 9. His experience, ability to finish with both feet, and vision were critical to Phoenix’s success. Rising General Manager Bobby Dulle hopes that new striker Rufat Dadashov will emulate Jahn’s success. Though Dadashov is a fine talent, it will likely take him time to acclimate to playing in a new country and climate.
Dia has been a mainstay at left back for Phoenix since Didier Drogba made his Rising debut in June 2017. Owusu Ansah-Kontor looks like an adequate replacement, but lacks Dia’s speed and offensive abilities. It is the USL equivalent of replacing Aaron Rodgers with Kirk Cousins.
Musa has been one of Phoenix’s most underrated players in the past two seasons. Since Rick Schantz took over in June 2018, he has been firmly behind Kevon Lambert on the defensive midfielder depth chart. As a result, he has not had enough opportunities to show his capabilities. Musa’s ability to plug in during Kevon’s frequent international absences will be sorely missed. As will his physicality.
Most Western Conference Foes Improved
In its first 2020 episode, the 3 Honest Lads podcasters said Phoenix Rising has not improved during the off-season. The same cannot be said for many of Phoenix Rising’s foes.
Colorado Springs and Tulsa participated in “Real Makeover: USL Edition” by adding marquee international names like Maicon, Lebo Moloto, George Lebese, and Hiroki Kurimoto. San Diego Loyal signed Joe Greenspan and Irvin Parra. Sac Republic brought in a brilliant tactician in Mark Briggs. Orange County FC re-signed Thomas Enevoldsen and largely returns a squad that played its best ball down the stretch.
Phoenix Rising still has the most talent and depth on paper of any team in the West. But, the gap has closed enough that factors like bad injury luck, a breakout season for a challenger in the West, or a deep Open Cup run for Rising FC could result in Phoenix falling a couple of spots in the Western Conference table.
Phoenix is Due for an Open Cup Run
The U.S. Open Cup is a double-edged sword. Everyone remembers the lengthy Open Cup runs of New Mexico and St. Louis in 2019, or FC Cincinnati in 2017. Few remember those teams for their regular season finishes. While deep Cup runs bring exposure and potential revenue, they also exert a heavy tax on USL squads in league fixtures.
Phoenix has not advanced past the 3rd Round of the Open Cup since 2014. It suffered a brutal stoppage-time loss to the Deltas in 2017, and even tougher penalty defeats to Sporting Arizona FC and New Mexico since. On the flip side, Phoenix has been a major beneficiary from these losses in the league. Each of the past three seasons, Phoenix improved its final table position from its position in May.
Phoenix Rising is too good to not eventually have a deep Cup run, and its roster is better equipped to handle both competitions than any other in the USL. A Phoenix second-team starting XI would feature Jack Barmby, Joey Calistri, Joey Farrell, and possibly even Santi Moar. With any luck, Phoenix should finally break through to at least the 4th Round in 2020. This could result in a slight dip in league form, even for Phoenix with its mighty squad depth.
The Schedule Is Less Favorable
Phoenix overcame a difficult start to the 2019 campaign with its historic 20-match win streak. Such a feat will be nearly impossible with its 2020 slate. Phoenix plays its first four road matches in Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Orange County. Those matches figure to keep Rick Schantz’s club out of the top spot in the first two months.
Phoenix has a stretch with 7 of 9 home matches in May and early June. This sounds great on paper, until you consider these matches fall in the heat of Open Cup season. Phoenix will have to balance the Open Cup with home matches against Sacramento, Colorado Springs, Reno, El Paso, and Orange County. If Phoenix makes a serious Open Cup run, this looks like shades of 2019 New Mexico and a slew of crucial dropped points at home.
In a departure from recent seasons, Rising also finishes with 3 of 4 matches on the road. The club will travel to OKC Energy and Reno, host Las Vegas, and finish in Sacramento. Not an ideal finish!
Three reasons why it’s not a bad thing if they don’t repeat
With all that being said, this article should not be all doom and gloom for Phoenix fans. It also should not give opposing supporters a sense of false confidence. Everyone plays for the USL Championship Cup, not for regular season glory. Here are three reasons why Phoenix Rising’s potential fall on the table may be a blessing in disguise.
The Western Conference Top Seed has Never Reached a USL Cup Final
In another example of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, the USL Western Conference has never even advanced a top-two seed to the USL Cup.
|West’s Top Seed
|West’s Playoff Winner (Seed)
|Orange County Blues
|WC SF, 0-2 Loss
|LA Galaxy II (5th)
|WC QF, 0-0 PK Loss
|Swope Park (4th)
|WC QF, 1-1 PK Loss
|Swope Park (4th)
|Orange County SC
|WCF, 1-2 Loss
|Phoenix Rising (3rd)
|Phoenix Rising FC
|WCSF, 1-2 Loss
|Real Monarchs (4th)
In 2015, 2016, and 2017, the top seed was eliminated in its first playoff match. It seems that the hunters out West fare better than the hunted, to a point. No team seeded lower than 5th has reached the USL Cup.
This could bode well for Phoenix in 2020. If Rising FC ends the 2020 regular season in the 2nd-5th seed range in the West with a chip on its shoulder, it could be perfectly positioned for a USL Cup run.
The Regular Season Champions have not Won a USL Playoff Match Since 2016
Mel Kiper Jr. famously said before the 2018 NFL Draft that “stats are for losers” when evaluating Josh Allen, the best non-MVP quarterback of the class. I will amend his quote to say “regular season stats are for losers.”
In 2017, plate-winner Real Monarchs crashed out in penalties to Sacramento Republic. In 2018, FC Cincinnati needed PKs to squeak past Nashville before being stunned 1-0 by Red Bulls II. Phoenix edged Austin in penalties after 120 scoreless minutes last year, then squandered an early lead in a 2-1 loss to Real Monarchs. In those three seasons, the regular-season champions have combined to advance twice on penalties, lose once on penalties, and lose twice in regulation.
If a team’s primary goal is to win the USL Cup, recent history suggests that its fans should not celebrate a regular-season title for long.
The Goal is the Cup
This sounds straightforward enough. But during the 20 match win streak, the Rising players and staff put an extra emphasis on extending the streak as long as possible. This resulted in some of the most epic comeback wins in USL regular-season history. It also resulted in league MVP Solomon Asante being completely gassed by the end of September. Amadou Dia admitted in an interview with the Rising as One podcast that the streak weighed on the players as it grew. Coach Schantz stuck with the same Starting XI as often as possible throughout the streak. By the time playoffs rolled around, Phoenix was forced to grind out results on tired legs, while its opposition was rounding into peak form.
Since re-branding to Phoenix Rising FC, the club has accomplished something historic each season. In 2017, it reached the playoffs for the first time. In 2018, Phoenix reached its first USL Cup. 2019 saw the club break almost every regular-season record in the book.
In 2020, I expect Rick Schantz to consistently reinforce to his players that the USL Cup is the team’s ultimate goal. I expect more squad rotation during the regular season, especially if Phoenix advances several rounds in the Open Cup. I hope veterans like Asante, Rufat Dadashov, Darnell King, and AJ Cochran are fresh for the playoff push. And I believe Phoenix will create more history in 2020, either in the Open Cup or with a first ever USL Title.
Phoenix Rising will not defend its USL Regular Season title. Because the club has a bigger goal in mind.