4 things we learned in Phoenix Rising's 2-2 draw with Orange County

·5 min read

Phoenix Rising drew, 2-2, with Orange County on Saturday night. The match was Rising’s first draw of the season, but the eighth time in nine games that they’ve failed to win. Here are four thoughts from the match:

One point isn’t good enough

A draw isn’t inherently a bad result, especially on the back of four straight losses. And when it comes thanks to a 94th minute equalizer, it naturally feels good.

That’s the tune Rising manager Rick Schantz sung after the game.

“Getting the point was massive because of the way that we went down twice,” Schantz said. “… The players fought, they never gave up, they never gave in. They didn't get frustrated. They didn't yell at each other. They're coming together.”

But at this point in the season, one point from a home game against the second-worst team in the Western Conference isn’t good enough.

Rising are four points out of the playoffs. They entered having lost consecutive matches to non-playoff teams. Calls for Schantz’s job are increasing. In other words, they desperately needed an emphatic turning point.

Orange County — losers of five of their last six — at home? That was a golden opportunity to right the ship. Beat them, 3-0, show that there’s still firepower within this side. Instead, Phoenix came out flat, went behind twice and had to scrape its way to a draw.

Now, Rising embarks on consecutive cross-country road trips to the top two teams in the Western Conference still in search of answers for a weary fanbase.

Off-the-field issues are compiling

Rising’s recent silence on political issues, creating friction between the club and its most vocal supporters, has been well-documented. Given the importance of matchgoing fans in a league with miniscule TV contracts, the club needs to reconcile the apparent difference in ideology in some way that keeps the fanbase together.

But that’s not the only off-field issue Rising has had in recent weeks. Earlier this month, fan favorite Jonathan Levin’s departure was announced via one sentence buried at the bottom of a press release — a slight to a player who had developed into a fan favorite.

Then, on Saturday, midfielder Luis Seijas was mysteriously not in the match-day squad. Seijas has been dealing with a minor injury, but he wasn’t on the pre-match injury list.

So what happened?

“It was a clerical mistake,” Schantz said. “Didn't get into the (23-man roster) on time.”

That type of lack of professionalism is common at the lower levels of American soccer, but it hasn’t been common at Phoenix. It can’t become common or the club will lose its standing as one of USL’s premier organizations.

The defense needs fixing

Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC players get into an argument during the second half against Orange County SC on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Chandler.
Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC players get into an argument during the second half against Orange County SC on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Chandler.

After going through a prolonged scoring drought in late May and early June, Rising has scored seven goals over its past three games. That rate would make Phoenix the league’s top scoring team over the course of the season.

And yet, over those three games, Rising have just one point, because they’ve conceded nine. On Saturday, both goals came because the defense wasn’t aggressive and didn’t close down Milan Ilioski, the USL’s top scorer.

On the first goal, he attacked the Rising back line on the dribble and wasn’t challenged. On the second goal, he was left open at the back post and no one closed down the space, giving him seemingly endless time to shoot.

After the match, Schantz cited a potential foul on the second goal as the problem off the corner kick. Instead, he highlighted the play that led to the corner kick — another example of Rising being far too cautious defensively.

“It was really how we got to the corner kick that was frustrating to me,” Schantz said. “We had locked them in the attacking half and our back four was still too deep. I think we were 20 yards in our own half. As a coach, you have to go back and look at how you get into this position.”

For most of the season, injuries have been an understandable excuse for Rising’s back line. Center-back James Musa has missed 11 games and defensive midfielder Kevon Lambert has missed four and played out of position in six.

In the last two weeks, though, Rising has conceded five goals with its first-choice back line — a unit that allowed 1.1 goals per game last year. It’s on Schantz to figure out how to get them back to that level.

Lamin Jawneh impressed in debut

Jawneh, a winger, seemed to be a bit of a strange signing when the club added him last week.

The last time he was in US — with Atlanta United 2 in 2020 — he was a rarely-used bench player and didn’t record a goal or an assist in 11 appearances. Then, he went to the Dominican League, which is worse than USL, and managed just one goal in 12 starts.

But during the week, Schantz praised Jawneh for the issues he can create with his pace. That showed on Saturday after Jawneh came in for Irakoze Donasiyano in the 60th minute.

His first involvement came when he used his speed to get in behind the Orange County defense and win a corner. Then, in the 89th minute, he nearly scored off a curling cross that edged towards goal and forced the Orange County goalkeeper into a scrambling, finger-tip save.

“I thought Lamin was pretty exciting,” Schantz said. “The kid can move. So hopefully he's gonna get sharper and sharper and get more fit, get used to our style. But I think he's a good addition.”

Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at theo.mackie@gannett.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What we learned in Phoenix Rising's draw with Orange County