Sacramento Republic FC will look to begin a deep run in the 2020 USL Championship playoffs Saturday, when they take on Phoenix Rising FC in a win-or-go-home scenario in Arizona. To get a sense of how things are looking with Sacramento’s opponent ahead of the big game, I spoke to Arizona-based reporter Owain Evans about Phoenix Rising. Many thanks to Owain for taking the time to answer my questions!
1. I think the general reputation is that Phoenix are a top team, and they finished atop their group this season, but how did the season go for PRFC, generally speaking? More success, or some bumps along the way to the playoffs?
Rising fans were spoiled last season. Once you’ve won more games in a row than there are in total this season, there’s a tendency to over-analyze. There have been grumbles at various points this year, but it’s hard to argue when the team finishes in second place overall, albeit in controversial circumstances. Perhaps one of the biggest problems on the field has come defensively, with both new full-back signings (Darnell King and Owusu-Ansah Kontoh) looking uncomfortable in Rick Schantz’s playing style. Kontoh has fallen out of the pecking order, being replaced by a makeshift in Joey Calistri and later by Corey Whelan. The coaching staff have stuck by King, despite some fan discontent over his positioning further up the field.
You can’t ignore the elephant in the room, which has certainly put a damper on the entire season. Last week’s game against Los Dos had a bizarre feeling to it in the stadium, and if that’s repeated, I could see it affecting the squad should Saturday’s match become a dogfight. Tactically, though, Rising is lucky that it has Santi Moar ready to replace Junior Flemmings in the lineup. Moar has looked better when starting than coming off the bench this year, so should be a good replacement for the Golden Boot winner.
2. Who is the key player Sacramento fans should be on the lookout for Saturday? Why is he so important?
I’m going to be slightly cheeky here and pick two — one up top, and one in defense.
Rising has a lot of strength going forward, but one of the keys to success could be the performance of Rufat Dadashov. The Azerbaijani forward has settled in well in the desert with 11 goals so far. Despite his height, don’t expect the aerial game to be a particular strength of his. However, he’s a very smart footballer, and his constant movement tends to cause trouble for the opposition defense.
Defensively, the return of Damion Lowe to full fitness could be critical. Rising has had a few defensive struggles this season, but in Lowe’s sole 90-minute performance, he looked a class above at center-back. He’s quick, his challenges are strong but fair, and he knows how to play the ball out of the back. If he’s playing at his best, Lowe is going to be tough for Sacramento to get past, and that’s what Rising needs to avoid succumbing to the most obvious gameplan against it.
3. How can Phoenix be stopped, especially in an elimination game?
Historically, and earlier in the season against Orange County, Rising struggles when facing a team that is willing to sit back and defend, and then pump longer balls up forward on the counter. Most teams do not find it easy to play a more gung-ho style against Phoenix, because simply looking to put goal after goal on the board is what Rising does and has for a while done very well. Frustrating the Rising attack by blocking off their attacking lanes could be the best bet here, and that’s what Austin succeeded in doing last year to force a penalty shootout.
One other key is likely to be taking advantage of early opportunities, because Rising has conceded the first goal in half of its home games this season. All of those came in the first 15 minutes.
4. Your prediction for the game?
I feel as though the hosts have a few goals in them, and while they might concede, they’re not going to concede that many. I’ll go with 3-1 in Rising’s favor.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.