Phoenix Rising FC will travel to Championship Soccer Stadium to play Orange County SC this Thursday, July 16, 2020. It is the first of what will be two consecutive USL Championship match-ups between the two clubs over the next 10 days. It is Phoenix's second match since the USL's "Return To Play", and they are 2-0-0 on the season after beating LA Galaxy II by a 4-0 score last Saturday. Orange County comes into the match with a record of 0-1-0, and have not played since drawing with El Paso Locomotive FC 0-0 in their season opener, all the way back on March 6th. In a real scheduling quirk, Phoenix will return to Irvine, California for rematch on July 25, with both clubs having 9 days off between the two match. They will meet or a third and final time in Group B play on September 26, 2020, when Orange County travels to Phoenix for a match at Casino Arizona Field. It seems as if these are always important matches when these two clubs meet. However, with the usual 34 match marathon of a season having been shortened to a 16 game sprint, the importance of every match is magnified, especially when taking into consideration that only 2 out of 6 teams in Group B will advance to the playoffs.
In addition to Phoenix and Orange County, the other clubs in USL Championship Group B include Sacramento Republic FC, Las Vegas Lights FC, San Diego Loyal SC, and Galaxy II. Currently, San Diego sits on top of the table with 7 points (2-1-0), but they have already played 3 matches. Phoenix is 2nd with 6 points (2-0-0), and a game in hand over San Diego. Los Dos are in 3rd with 3 points (1-0-1), plus a game in hand, and Orange County and Las Vegas are both (0-1-0) with 1 point, but have also only played one game thus far. As described in my last article, the top 2 teams from each group will advance to the playoffs. Phoenix Rising are favored to win the group, and with a +9 goal difference over their first 2 matches, it looks like they might have an even stronger attack than last season if that is possible. However, their matches so far have been against Portland Timbers 2 (widely expected to be one of the worst clubs in the Western Conference), and a Los Dos team last week who were missing a number of key players. In a standard season, it would be hard to imagine Phoenix not finishing high enough in the table to at least qualify for the playoffs, but this group format makes things a little bit more difficult. Sacramento and Orange County are both perennially strong sides, throw upstart San Diego into the mix and you now have 4 teams battling it out for only 2 playoff spots.
Orange County SC vs Phoenix Rising Vital Information
This is a Nationally televised match, and an be viewed on ESPN2 in the United States. The match is at 6 PM Arizona time on Thursday, July 16, 2020.
Referee assignments have not been published as of press time.
This will be the 21st meeting all time between Phoenix Rising and Orange County SC. In the previous 20 meetings, Phoenix has won 9 times, Orange County has won 6 times, and there has been 5 draws. It was a Phoenix victory in the most recent of those, 3-0 at Phoenix back on June 15, 2019. The clubs split their two match-ups last season, with Orange County's 2-1 victory over Phoenix on May 4 notably being PRFC's last loss before their record breaking 20-game-winning-streak. The 20 meetings between the 2 clubs are the most of any Phoenix Rising opponent, and that total will rise to at least 23 before this year is done with both clubs assigned to Group B.
Five Points That Shouldn’t be Overlooked
While Phoenix has been able to keep most of their core midfield players together, the one position that has been a bit of a revolving door has been striker. In 2019, Chris Cortez set what was then a team scoring record with 19 goals including the post season. After Cortez departed for Thailand that offseason, Phoenix brought in veteran Adam Jahn at the beginning of last season. They didn't miss a beat with Jahn, who scored 17 goals, but also played impressively enough to catch the eye of MLS side Atlanta United, who acquired Jahn from Phoenix for a $100,000 transfer fee this offseason. So far, it seems like Phoenix's scouting department has struck gold again with this year's acquisition, Rufat Dadashov. On opening night, Dadashov made about as much noise as you can in a debut, registering a hat trick. He didn't find the back of the net against Los Dos, but he did make a key pass to Solomon Asante that eventually lead to Asante setting up Junior Flemming's 9th minute goal. The fact that he has been able to step in and make an immediate impact with limited training time speaks volumes about Rick Schantz's ability to find the right players for his sytem.
To go a little bit deeper on the striker position, Phoenix has added a player this year that gives Schantz a different kind of weapon in his toolbox. If you look at the players above (Cortez, Jahn, Dadashov), they are all what I would consider to be someone who is textbook definition of a number 9 (think Harry Kane). A player like this is generally going to be taller (over 6 feet) and good at finding space. These are also all guys that use their size to wear out defenders, are good at holding the ball up for their teammates, and have impressive work rates (something Schantz has raved about with Dadashov). The one thing all of these guys lack is straight line speed. Especially when you consider that last year's reserve striker Ben Spencer also fit this mold, the one thing Schantz has never really had at his disposal is a striker with game changing pace. However, as part of the Jahn deal, Phoenix received Lagos Kunga on loan from Atlanta for this year, and he is certainly a guy who brings that element, with Schantz even going as far to say he might be the fastest guy on the whole team. Kunga subbed on in the 70th minute against Los Dos, and I think could really thrive in that "impact player off of the bench" roll for Phoenix this year.
If you have been following the USL Championship for any length of time, then chances are that you are familiar with veteran striker Thomas Enevoldsen. Back in 2018, Enevoldsen has 20 goals and added 9 assists for Orange County. Last season, he split time between Indy Eleven and Sacramento, totaling 13 goals and 6 assists between the two clubs. This year he has returned to Orange County, and is the kind of guy that is capable of changing a game all by himself. In regards to Enevoldsen, coach Schantz has said that he presents a particularly difficult challenge for defenses due to his ability to find and slip into seams that open up between the back line and midfielders. However, according to Schantz, there are unconfirmed reports that Enevoldsen may not be back into the country yet. If Enevoldsen is not available then I would expect that new acquisition Sean Okoli, who scored 16 goals for FC Cincinnati in 2018, could be the main man up front. Michael Seaton, who scored 12 goals for them last year departed for Germany, while Darwin Jones, who also scored 12 times for OC last year is still listed as with the team, but didn't play opening night. Working under the assumption that Jones is available, I would expect him to pair up front with Okoli if Enevoldsen is in fact unavailable.
One of the most debated topics for Phoenix Rising fans over the past year has been penalty kicks. After a strong start to last season, Asante ran into some problems with missed PK's late in the year. It wasn't just the missed kicks themselves, but you could tell that it was something that was weighing heavily on his shoulders for the whole 90 minutes. Whether it was a matter of teams having too much film on him, the weight of the pressures of a record breaking winning streak, the toll of thousands of minutes played, or a combination of all of the above, it was clear to everyone watching that Solo just wasn't quite the same those last few games. Last week, the question of whether or not he would still be on penalties this season was answered early on, with Jon Bakero converting a penalty that had been drawn by Flemmings. Ultimately, this is the right move, and that has nothing to do with Solo's ability to make penalties. He was converting them at a record clip last season at one point, and he didn't just suddenly forget how to make kicks. The bottom line though is that we don't need him too. Asante is an MVP player with or without penalty kicks, and has already recorded 3 goals and 3 assists from the run of play in 2 games this year. This is on top of being team captain, a leader in the locker room, and a top flight defensive player at the midfield. Sometimes less is more, and in this case I think it's just a matter of Solo already does enough, let's take this one thing off of his plate and let him do what he does best. To me the most interesting thing to see will be if Bakero is the regular penalty taker this year, or if there will be a bit of a rotation. Personally, I like the idea of keeping the opposing keep guessing as much as possible and using a rotation.
Taking a look at the gambling line on this, one of the first things I am going to say is that right now isn't probably the best time to be betting. Especially considering that Orange County hasn't played a game since March AND we don't even know if their best player is going to be playing or not, to say this is a crapshoot would be an understatement. That being said, right now the average bet on Phoenix Rising to win is at -.109 which is a payout of $19.10 on a $10 bet. Anytime you can get close to even money on Phoenix Rising, its a bit of a rare opportunity, but this also tells me that the books are giving respect to Orange County. A bet on Orange County to win is at +243, or a payout of $34.30 on a $20 bet. This number tells me that the books are guarding against having to pay the draw, which is right now set at +247 or a payout of $34.70 on a draw. When I look at this, it tells me the books are trying to get some money bet on both sides, and are expecting a draw. One other thing worth noting is that the line has moved in the past 24 hours from -.111 to -.109 which isn't a big adjustment, but shows that the late money (often referred to as the pros money) is coming in on OC, so take that for what you will.
Orange County SC Vs Phoenix Rising Prediction
I don't know if it's
#OrangeCountyHateWeek or #OrangeCountyHateFortnight considering the 2 matches in 10 days, but I do know one thing. With all disrespect to New Mexico United, Phoenix's biggest rival is Orange County due to the history that includes, as mentioned above, 20 matches against one another, one of which came in the Western Conference Finals. I would normally say this is the kind of match where you can just throw the table rankings our the window, but...... that has kind of already be done. This will without a doubt be the biggest test Phoenix has faced so far this year, and that test will be even more difficult is Enevoldsen is available. I can see this being one of those games where neither team wants to give an inch on the pitch, and could even see it being 0-0 or 1-0 at halftime. That being said, from what I have seen so far, Phoenix Rising appears to be a team of men playing in a league of boys this year, even more so even than last year. I think Orang Country will hold it close for awhile, but once Phoenix gets a 2nd goal the floodgates are going to open, and I see this one really getting away from OC. Once it gets past the 70th minute I think Phoenix's strength of depth will really start to show, and late subs Santi Moar and Kunga will make an impact in putting this match to bed.
Prediction: Phoenix Rising - 4 Orange County - 1