LA Galaxy II travel to Casino Arizona Field to play Phoenix Rising FC this Saturday, July 11 2020 as the USL Championship returns to play for the first time since the season was suspended due to COVID-19. It will be Phoenix's first time in action since beating Portland Timbers 2 by a 6-1 margin all the way back on March 7, 2020. Since I started these articles, I have generally followed a pretty standard format in terms of providing statistical and standing information about the teams, which players are in form, leading scorers, where to watch, etc. However, in a year where absolutely nothing as been standard, almost none of that regular information is most relevant right now. So, for the first time ever I will be breaking from my standard formation for this article. Next week, expect more of a return to normal, but with a bit of an extra surprise. Arran Airs will be composing some tables with stats relevant to the upcoming Phoenix Rising match-up each week. We are still working out details of whether those tables will be part of this article or posted separately, nonetheless, we are quite excited for this new addition to our Phoenix Rising coverage.
The most unusual thing about the return to play is that it will be without fans in the stands. While this has become "the new normal" for sporting events that have returned so far, as a season ticket member I am still holding our hope that we will be back in the stands at some point before the end of the season. In the mean time, the club has put together a fantastic program that will allow a cardboard cutout of our likeness in the stands AND support a great cause. With a donation of $25 to Black Family & Child Services, you can submit a photo to the team and have your cutout placed in the stands. My official cardboard cutout photo is seen here, and for our friends in England, yes I do wear 2 scarves to every match, even if it is 43 degrees Celsius at kickoff. I tend to pull harder on the scarves as the game progresses and things are closer down the stretch. My cutout will be at a permanent half strength scarf pull.
PRFC Fan Show & Phoenix Children's Hospital
Speaking of cutouts, our friends at PRFC Fan Show have absolutely raised the bar to another level and have set up a GoFundMe to have fans donate so that children who are currently patients at Phoenix Children's Hospital can have their own cardboard likenesses in the stands. As of the writing of this article they have already raised over $1500! A massive shout out to Kevin Gates and his whole team over there for putting this brilliant campaign together. On one final note, you can also pick up an awesome Rising Against Racism shirt for just $30 with proceeds also benefitting Black Family & Child Services. These are truly the reason's why I love being a footy fan because the club isn't just a sports team, it's part of the community.
What's Up With The Groups?
If you are like me you picked up a stack of bright red schedule magnets at the season opener against Portland and handed them out to all of your friends. The bad news is that those magnets have been made essentially useless now. The good news is one day you will have them as an odd souvenir to tell your grandkids about the great pandemic of 2020. The original 34 game schedule has been shortened to 16 games, and any games that have already been played count toward the 16. For Phoenix Rising, this means they will play 15 more games with 7 of them at home, and 8 away as pictured. Furthermore, instead of playing each team in your conference home and away, teams will be playing all of their games within regionalized groups. Phoenix Rising are in what is Group B: along with LA Galaxy II, Las Vegas Lights FC, Orange County SC, and San Diego Loyal SC. The other groups in the Western Conference are as follows: Group A: Portland Timbers 2, Reno 1868 FC, Sacramento Republic FC, Tacoma Defiance; Group C: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, El Paso Locomotive FC, New Mexico United, Real Monarchs SLC; Group D: Austin Bold FC, OKC Energy FC, Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC, FC Tulsa.
There will be a total of 8 teams making the playoffs, with the top 2 teams in each group qualifying. For those who watch the World Cup or Champions League this format will be familiar in that only the standings with your group count. In other words, if for example the 3rd place team in Group A had more points in their table than the 2nd place team in Group D had, that wouldn't matter as only the top 2 from each group advance. Group tables will still be ranked on the standard point system of 3 points per win, 1 point per draw, and 0 points per loss. Both Phoenix and Los Dos start this group stage of the season with 3 points, each having won their first match of the season. San Diego, one of two clubs who had already played 2 games enters the group stage with 4 points but will play one fewer game in the group stage than the other for teams. Las Vegas and Orange County both lost their opening match and start the group stage with 0 points.
What Is The Status Of Players Who Have Had Positive Coronavirus Tests?
While Phoenix Rising have had a significant number of playing staff test positive, the most important news is the none are seriously ill. As reported by Owain Evans, per GM Bobby Dulle, a total of 8 Phoenix Rising players tested positive for the virus. Of those, 5 have already cleared protocol and returned to the team, 2 more are expected to pass protocol and return after this weekend, while 1 player is still experiencing minor symptoms. It does not appear that names of players who tested positive will be released. It was also reported by Evans that only one regular starter is expected to miss Saturday's game, and that it was due to missed training time per head coach Rick Schantz. It was not reported whether the missed training time was due to Coronavirus, nor was that player named. I was not able to find information on whether or not any Los Dos players had tested positive.
Did We Learn Anything From The Opening Match?
For me that answer was a resounding yes. On the surface it may have just looked like Phoenix blowing out a team that they were supposed to blow out. However, coming into the season I had only a few question marks, and almost all of them were quickly answered. By USL Championship standards, Phoenix has done an amazing job of keeping their core lineup together in returning players like MVP Solomon Asante, the explosive Junior Flemmings, and versatile midfielder Kevon Lambert to name a few. However, there were 3 key losses during the offseason, the most notable being the prolific scoring striker Adam Jahn moving on Atlanta United in the MLS. Anytime one of the top teams in the MLS takes your starting striker for 100K, that is undoubtedly going to leave a hole in your lineup. What does the Phoenix Rising scouting department do? They go out and fill that whole with a little known striker from the German 3rd division named Rufat Dadashov. All this guy does is show up on opening night and score a hat trick in his very first night.
While less talked about than the departure of Jahn, no less important were the losses of full backs Amadou Dia and Mustapha Dumbuya. As explosive as Phoenix's offense was last season, it was often overlooked that they also had one of the best defenses in the conference too. Dia had been a staple and leader for the club for several seasons, but departed to the MLS. Dumbuya had a brilliant knack for connecting on the long pass with Asante, so I deemed both as huge losses. Standing in the South End on opening night, I spent a lot of time, especially in the 1st half, watching their respective replacements Darnell King and Owusu-Ansah Kontor. Let me tell you, both of these guys were impressive! Coach Schantz has noted many times that his coaching idol is Arsene Wenger and that he also studies the system of Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp. The important thing is that these coaches both play a system that relies on versatile fullbacks who are able to deliver the ball to the wings. Once again it appears that Phoenix's scouting department has found exactly what their manager was needing as both of these guys clearly fit that mold.
Phoenix Rising vs LA Galaxy II Prediction
As is usual when they are playing at home, Phoenix is heavily favored to win this match. Both clubs had impressive outings in their opening matches, in which they outscored their respective opponents by a combined 9 goals. Phoenix opened against Portland Timbers 2 who are perennially one of the worst teams in the conference to the point that the 6-1 spread was only mildly surprising. The 5 goal outburst by Los Dos against defensive oriented Rio Grande Valley was a bit more of a surprise. Under ordinary circumstances I would say that both clubs come in carrying the momentum from a big opening night win. Being that those matches happened what was roughly the length of a regular offseason ago, those results are long forgotten memories. With limited information on which players may have missed training time among other factors, predicting an outcome here is an abnormal challenge. That being said, I would say that it would be a near consensus opinion that Phoenix Rising have a more talented, experienced, and complete roster than Los Dos, who are an MLS backup squad. Furthermore, Phoenix came into this season as a team on a mission after the disappointing finish to last season. Four months later I don't think their focus on the mission will have been broken, nor will the bitter taste of last Fall's upset elimination to Real Monarchs have lessened.
Prediction: Phoenix Rising - 3 LA Galaxy II - 1