Against backdrop of unrelenting criticism, Rising show signs of life in draw

For the second time in as many home games, the national anthem at Wild Horse Pass was met with condemnation of Phoenix Rising’s current direction.

Before Rising drew Orange County, 2-2, in early July, their supporters walked out in protest of the club’s silence on Roe v. Wade. On Saturday, the ire was directed simply at one man: manager Rick Schantz.

“Rick, thanks for the memories but it’s time to say goodbye,” read the black-and-white tifo unfurled by supporters.

Entering Saturday night’s game against Sacramento Republic, Rising haven't won in seven tries — a club record. Over their previous 10 games, they had accrued just five points, plunging into 11th place in the Western Conference.

The frustration, then, is understandable, especially for a fanbase that has grown accustomed to success. In each of the past four seasons, Rising have either reached the USL final or won the Western Conference regular season title.

This year, the type of dominant performances that previously defined Schantz’s tenure have been absent. But on Saturday, even in a 0-0 draw, something strange happened. This 2022 iteration of Phoenix Rising, so disappointing through half the season, suddenly looked a lot like the Phoenix Rising of old.

Against a Sacramento team that currently sits in the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, Rising had 62% possession and got off 27 shots, both high-water marks for the club in USL play this season. Their 2.68 expected goals — in contrast to Sacramento’s 0.86 — were the most of the year in all competitions.

“It's been a bit of a while,” Schantz said, racking his memory for the last time Rising created as many chances. “I love that we played our brand of football. There were some really good moments.”

And yet, the actual goals number — the one that matters, not on a spreadsheet, but in reality — was again zero. For the eighth straight game, Rising failed to win. And now, with just 14 games to play, they sit six points outside the playoffs.

That reality arrived after a bevy of missed chances, especially in the second half.

The best opportunity of the game fell to Kevon Lambert at the far post, after a corner kick was flicked on by Marcus Epps. Lambert, with time, space and a mostly open goal to aim for, shanked his attempt wide, providing the night’s biggest sigh of relief for Sacramento goalkeeper Carlos Saldaña.

“We created a lot of chances,” Schantz said. “We gotta put one away, that's really what it comes down to.”

Lambert wasn’t the only culprit. Two minutes before his miss, centerback James Musa confusingly tried to place a header from close range rather than powering it, creating an easy save for Saldaña. And in the first half, striker Richmond Antwi turned a half-volley right at Saldaña from point-blank range.

On the other end, Sacramento only created one chance of note, in stark contrast to their impressive, 2-0, win over Phoenix in U.S. Open Cup play two months ago. That moment came in the opening seconds of the first half, when winger Luther Archimède caught center-back Joey Farrell sleeping to break through on goal and force an excellent one-on-one save out of Rising goalkeeper Ben Lundt.

“The breakaway was fantastic,” Schantz said. “That's what he's best at.”

None of it, though, was enough to silence postgame questions — not about the club’s struggles nor Schantz’s job security. That duty had to come from general manager Bobby Dulle, who instructed Schantz to not answer any questions about the pre-match sign.

“We're just gonna keep it positive,” Schantz said.

Seen through the lens of a rare strong performance, Schantz’s directive felt understandable, even sympathetic. Seen through the lens of yet another missed opportunity, it felt stubborn, even belittling.

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: Against backdrop of criticism, Rising show signs of life in draw