Phoenix Rising FC returns to USL Championship play as it hosts Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field.
Both clubs are coming into this one in a six-way tie for sixth place with 14 points apiece. And with the parity throughout the Western Conference, three points would bring one of these teams just one point out of first.
The two Western Conference foes are also both coming off of midweek U.S. Open Cup matches, making it three matches in about a week for both sides.
Last season, PRFC won the series 2-1 as Phoenix was able to win 4-0 and 2-0 before falling 5-2 in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is coached by Eric Wynalda. Yes, the same one that played in three World Cups for the United States and scored the first goal in MLS history. That Wynalda.
He even hinted at perhaps taking a page out of Rising’s playbook of success on $1 beer night and putting a twist of his own on it.
His side comes into this matchup unbeaten (2-1-0) its last three USL Championship matches, with two of those games being wins over Sacramento Republic FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, both teams that Phoenix has tied this season. Las Vegas has outscored those opponents 7-2 in that span.
However, the two wins came at home while the lone draw came on the road against LA Galaxy II. Those results have been a trend all season, as Las Vegas captured its first point on the road in that last road match against Galaxy II. Prior to that, LV had lost all four of its away matches.
While Las Vegas goalkeeper Thomas Olsen is tied for second in the league in clean sheets with five, the first away shutout also came in LV’s most recent away game.
Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Zac Lubin has just one less clean sheet than Olsen this season.
But just because Las Vegas’ form on the road is less than spectacular, to say the least, the squad possesses some extremely talented players that can help improve the team’s road record.
The most notable player is forward Irvin Parra, as he leads the team with seven goals, which is tied for second in the entirety of USL Championship. Parra also leads the league in shots with 39 compared to Rising captain Soloman Asante’s 27 (tied for third in USL Championship).
As a team, LV is tied for second in the league with 81% passing accuracy while PRFC sits tied for fourth at 80%. But take that with a grain of salt, as USL Championship’s leading team in total passes on the season is Tacoma Defiance who sit at the very bottom of the Western Conference table. It’s efficient passing that wins games, not just passing for passing’s sake.
That couldn’t be more evident between the two sides as Las Vegas leads the league in shots (175) with Rising in second with 173. Both sides are tied for sixth in the league with 18 goals scored.
It will be interesting to see who Rising manager Rick Schantz deploys in his starting XI on Saturday night.
Asante returned from Ghana earlier this week after being away from the club due to personal reasons and actually came on in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match against New Mexico United.
If the Ghanaian is able to start, it would bring back the dynamic playmaking ability that the team has been missing as the captain is tied for the league lead in chances created (30). His average of 3.8 per match is almost a full pass more than the next player (3.0). His four assists are tied with Junior Flemmings for the most on the team.
Schantz has proven he is not afraid to shape his formation based on his personnel instead of the other way around. In the previous USL Championship match against Rio Grande Valley Toros FC, Schantz switched from his usual 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders to more of a 4-3-3 with only one holding midfielder. That holding midfielder (James Musa against RGV) allows for Kevon Lambert to get higher up the pitch and get more involved in the attack.
As long as Collin Fernandez is sidelined with a lower-body injury, expect to see a lot of Musa, who actually prefers being alone as the true number six.
But in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match, the PRFC manager displayed the same 4-3-3 formation but without a true number nine striker. Midfielder Jon Bakero was playing up front, creating more of a false-9 than the 4-3-3 used against RGV last week.
With Saturday’s match being Rising FC’s third in nine days and Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match adding an extra 30 minutes on the legs of PRFC’s players, don’t expect to see a full-strength starting XI. Schantz has said he doesn’t want to put too many meters on his side’s legs in the first half of the season. But with the depth that Rising has, each and every match will have first team quality.
However, there is a depth concern when it comes to club’s striker when Adam Jahn is not on the pitch. Jahn leads the team in goals (5), which is only two less than the Western Conference’s top goal scorer. And although Ben Spencer has gotten on the scoresheet this season in Jahn’s absence, he has yet to have the same effect on the game as Jahn does.
Regardless of Schantz’s starting XI against Las Vegas, Rising will be looking to extend its eight-game unbeaten streak at home that dates back to last season and includes playoff and U.S. Open Cup matches.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and the match can be audio streamed on ArizonaSports.com.