Orange County SC travels to Casino Arizona Field in Tempe, AZ to play Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday, September 26, 2020. It is the third and final match between these clubs in USL Championship Group B, and the only meeting at Arizona. It was in late July that Phoenix traveled to Irvine, California on back to back weeks with the first match resulting in a 1-1 draw, and OCSC winning the second match by a 1-0 score. In a very crowded table within Group B, OC currently sits in 4th place with 21 points, but is just 5 points behind currently 1st place Phoenix (26 points). Notable is that 2nd place San Diego Loyal (23 points) have already played 15 out of their 16 matches, while PRFC, OCSC, and 3rd place Los Angeles Galaxy II (22 points) have played 13 apiece, meaning that all 3 have 2 games on hand on San Diego. (There is also a side situation involving a possible forfeit for an incident Wednesday that I will comment more on later). This logjam atop the table means that every game will have a playoff intensity from here on out.
We meet again..— Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) September 26, 2020
⏰ 7:30 p.m.
📺 @CW61Arizona // @abc15 app
MATCHDAY HQ: https://t.co/wE3ZMWQUIm#HastaLaCimaJuntos | #OwnThe* | Hispanic Heritage Night presented by @ArizonaFederal pic.twitter.com/Iuy5C7wReP
Phoenix and Orange County would likely have been the two teams that most pundits would have named to be the playoff teams out of Group B when things got underway. Both can still make that happen, but the road has been much tougher than expected in what has turned into a "group of death". Last Saturday, Phoenix was beaten 3-2 at home by San Diego, and surrendered a first half hat trick to Rubio Rubin and their 3 losses are just 1 less than the 4 they lost in a full 34 games season last year. OCSC got back on the winning track with a 1-0 win over Las Vegas Lights last Saturday, but prior to that they had lost 3 games in-a-row. The series between Phoenix and Orange County has been dominated by the home team recently, with Phoenix's victory in the 2018 Western Conference Finals marking the last time a road team won in this series. Phoenix is also coming into this match off of their first home loss of the season, which is only their 2nd regular season loss, and 4th across all competitions over the past 2 years. (Including the U.S. Open Cup loss in penalties to New Mexico United.) Phoenix is tied with Reno 1868 for the Western Conference lead in goals scored with 38, while OCSC's 12 goals allowed is the 2nd fewest in the conference behind San Antonio's 11 allowed. As good as their defense has been OCSC has really struggled to score, and their 13 goals are tied for 3rd fewest in the conference. In fact, Junior Flemmings has as many goals (13) by himself, as they do as a team. Phoenix's 17 goals allowed still places them upper mid-pack defensively, but they have managed just 3 clean sheets this season.
Phoenix Rising vs San Diego Loyal Vital Information
This is a televised match, and and can be viewed on ESPN Plus in the United States and locally in Arizona on CW61. The match is at 7:30 PM Arizona time on Saturday, September 26, 2020.
This will be the 23rd meeting all time between Phoenix Rising and Orange County SC. In the previous 22 meetings, Phoenix has won 9 times, Orange County has won 7 times, and there has been 6 draws. The 22 meetings between the two clubs are the most of between Phoenix Rising and any opponent.
Limited fans will be in attendance at Casino Arizona Field.
The Lead Story
For the first time ever, the lead story does not involve the Phoenix Rising, and for the what seems like the 1 millionth time this year I am writing about something that I wish I didn't have to. It also marks the first time that I will editorialize a bit in this section, but this unfortunately IS the biggest story of the week. First, I have to applaud the San Diego Loyal organization for taking unprecedented action in these circumstances. Now as I have said many times, Across the Pitch will NEVER be a political website, or comment on things political, but treating other human beings as other equal human beings isn't a political issue. Now I know things mean different things to different people, but as I have observed the players in the USL stop playing and stand silently in solidarity from the 7 minute mark to the 8 minute and 46 second mark of each match, it wasn't about anything political to me. It was about making a commitment to stand beside you fellow man in the face of injustice.
“We don’t even want to recognize being a part of a match where these types of actions take place.”— San Diego Loyal (@SanDiegoLoyal) September 25, 2020
Our full statement below regarding the racial slur that was directed at our player in the Sept. 23rd match.#SDLoyal | #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/bwIr50ToFy
That should be something that everyone can get behind regardless of politics. Given the opportunity to do just that on Wednesday, we saw the opposite. It would have been very easy for any member of the Galaxy II playing or coaching staff to take a stand against their teammate/players's actions and demand his removal from the game. Unfortunately, the actions of the Los Angeles Galaxy II players and coaching staff showed that time standing together was nothing more than a hollow action. Right now I don't even care how all of this impacts the final table, because it is not only bigger than football, but just thoroughly disappointing.
Phoenix Rising Player Snapshots
Getting back to football I want to take a moment to write about a guy who has started the past 2 weeks due to Asante's hamstring injury. That of course is Santi Moar. Earlier in the season I had written a few posts related to plus/minus ratio that could have been taken as criticism of Moar, but was really just meant to illustrate that he wasn't quite as effective as Asante or Flemmings (arguably the two best players in the entire league). I have always thought Moar was a good player, we saw that last year when he was with New Mexico, but the past 2 weeks he has really shown as just how good he can be. In Asante's absence, he has been started on the right side, which is not his preferred side, but has still been extremely effective. He has 3 assists over the past 2 matches, and easily could have scored a goal against San Diego were it not for a phenomenal play by San Diego keeper Jon Kempin.
To give an idea of how active he was in that game, he placed 2 of 5 shots on target, and hit 8 crosses last Saturday. When I had written about Moar earlier, one of the concerns that I had expressed is that bringing him in meant moving Flemmings off of his most effective role on the left wing, and subtracting Rufat Dadashov, the only true number 9 in the squad. However, last week, when Asante subbed on for Jon Bakero in 61st minute, we saw something we haven't seen much if any of this year, and that is Phoenix's 4 biggest scoring threats on the field at once. With this set up you are subtracting a true central attacking midfielder from the lineup and running with 3 natural wingers in Asante, Flemmings and Moar. That being said, I like the idea of having this much firepower on the pitch all at once, especially since you still have Joey Calistri available to sub at one of the wing positions if necessary. You can hear more thoughts on Moar and much more on the podcast I recorded with Jake Anderson on Wednesday.
Listen To Our Phoenix Rising Podcast With Jake Anderson
To follow up on last week's big news, center back Damion Lowe has been announced by head coach Rick Schantz as being ready to play a full 90 minutes. In his press conference on Tuesday, Schantz did not confirm whether or not Lowe would be in the starting lineup against Orange County, but seemed to hint that it was coming sooner rather than later. This fills a big need for Phoenix Rising, as it might finally fill the hole left by the departures of Amadou Dia and Mustapha Dumbuya, last season's starting fullbacks, who both moved on in the offseason. Darnell King has made Dia's old role at left back his, but right back has been a bit of a revolving door. Owusu Ansah-Kontoh was signed during the offseason, and expected to start. Although his stats haven't been that bad, it seems like he is just not a good fit for Schantz's system, and coach has made it fairly evident that he isn't in the team's plans going forward. They tried out Calistri at the position, and he performed admirably, but it inevitably the natural winger found himself a bit out of his element on the back line. Corey Whelan has slid over from center back to right back, and solidified that position, but this has created a problem at the center back in that you are starting two very similar players in A.J. Cochran and Joey Farrell.
🚨NEW #UpRising Podcast🚨@PHXRisingFC & @jff_football center back @NanaLowe31 joins me to discuss:— Jake Anderson (@jwa1994) September 25, 2020
⚽️Playing at @HartfordMSOC
⚽️His first week in Phoenix
⚽️Signing for #PRFC
⚽️His career aspirations
🎧 on @AZSports👇🏼https://t.co/L59h7OmWM0
Both Cochran and Farrell are strong on the ball defenders who are good in the air, and can get forward to help on set pieces. One thing that is not a strength for either is passing, and that is where Whelan is missed, and hopefully Lowe will be able to step in. As Anderson pointed out on the podcast, part of Phoenix's struggles have to do with having a guy like Cochran being the one that is trying to split two defenders with a pass to get the ball up to a winger. This isn't a knock on Cochran, but more an example of costly turnovers happening because you are asking a guy to do something that he isn't used to doing.
Another thing that I discussed on the podcast with Jake was fan frustration and the idea of whether or not Phoenix Rising Twitter has become overly toxic after a poor performance. This is not to say that I don't have high expectations for the team, or get as angry over a loss as anyone else, I have just always been of the philosophy that you are going to get further by supporting the players through a tough time then being overly critical. It seems overly simplistic, but if a guy hears that he sucks enough times, eventually he is going to start believing it themselves. This is not to say anyone is right or wrong, but I have had folks from Accrington tell me that after a loss Phoenix Rising Twitter sounds a lot like Manchester United Twitter. Now that is surely a positive thing, and speaks for just how high of a standard and expectations this club has set over the past few years. On the other hand, this is still the USL Championship, a second tier league, in a country that isn't exactly known for the sport. The talent has gotten exponentially better over the past few years, but that also leads to a higher level of competition, which has been very apparent this year.
Ultimately, I think when fans are hard on the players it just shows how much they care, and how much passion there is for this club. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster to say the least, and I think our friend Mark Richards summed up the feelings of the fanbase very well in his tweet. Coming into this season, expectations had never been higher, and rightfully so. On paper this is the most talented roster in the league, and they have shown flashes of that, but the inconsistency has been maddening. I think all of this boils down to 2 key losses during the offseason. Dia as we mentioned above, and to a lesser degree James Musa were key losses, but both of those guys went on to the MLS, and were replaced suitably with King and Jordan Schweitzer. However, the guys I was more concerned about seeing walk were Dumbuya and Ben Spencer, and was confused why neither was brought back considering both signed with other USL clubs.
The situation with Spencer makes a bit more sense as I don't think Phoenix expected Atlanta to make the $100,000 offer for Adam Jahn, and that Dadashov was brought in to be backup to Jahn, this making Spencer expendable. Once Jahn left, it gave Phoenix only one true center forward on the squad. Lagos Kunga came over from Atlanta on loan around the same time (in what I am told was a separate transaction from the Jahn deal), and seems to be a talented player but not suited to center forward, and 6th on the depth chart at an absolutely stacked wing position. This is only speculation, but my best guess is that Kunga wasn't as separate of a deal from Jahn as reported, they took a gamble that Kunga would be able to play number 9, and went bust on it. Furthermore, at the time the Phoenix cut ties with Spencer, Jahn was still on the roster, so it's fair to assume that Spencer left in search of more playing time.
The situation with Dumbuya is nothing short of baffling to me. It couldn't have been about playing time, since he was a clear cut starter, and Schantz has alluded to the idea that they would have liked to have had him back. I am doubtful that it was a matter of money either, because I can't imagine PRFC brass allowing a player they need to walk away to another contending USL Championship team like the Tampa Bay Rowdy without at least matching the money. I spoke with Anderson about this on our podcast this week, and he seemed to think it might have been something as simple as the guy likes living in Tampa better than he likes Phoenix, because there really isn't any tangible explanation otherwise. Phoenix Rising's scouting department has been as close to perfect as you can get in this business over the past few years, but it seems like they really just missed on Kontoh. This is especially surprising considering he was a guy who had been in the same division (with OCSC) for a number of years, and that they had plenty of film on. My best guess is that Schantz thought he had the tools to play in his system, and he is just player that is more suited to a more conservative system.
The good news is this situation seems to have been addressed with the Lowe signing, and Whelan has proven himself capable in the right back role.
To me I think it's a combination of things. The biggest being that for whatever reason Kontoh hasn't worked out and we didn't really have a backup plan at that position. The other being the short season. In a normal season, there would still be 21 games left. (1/2)— Phil (@AccyRising) September 25, 2020
I don't think its unrealistic for fans to expect anything less than 3 points every week, I think its more along the lines that I feel like sometimes if a player or the team has a bad game/couple of bad games that people are quick to forget about all the good games they've had— Phil (@AccyRising) September 25, 2020
Looking At The Opposition: Orange County
First and foremost, I would like to report the good news is that it doesn't look like Thomas Enevoldsen has ever returned from Denmark, so we won't have to deal with him tonight. That bad news is that we will have to deal with Sean Okoli, who has a team leading 6 goals, plus 2 assists for OCSC, including the game winner against Phoenix back in July. He also scored in an August match against Los Dos, that they ended up winning 2-1, and both goals in another 2-1 win over Los Dos earlier this month. OCSC has won 4 out of the 5 games he has scored in this year. In other words, this guy is so clutch he could be Paris Hilton's handbag. However, his 6 goals account for 41.6% of Orange Counties total scoring this year, and Aodhan Quinn (3 goals) and Cameron Palmer (2 goals) are the only other Orange County players with more than 1 goal. Attacking midfielder Brian Iloski (0 goals, 1 assist in 1050 minutes) is a player they need to get more out of. Last season he had 2 goals and for assists while playing for Los Dos in roughly the same number of minutes (1064).
The backline is lead by the center back pairing of 29-year-old veteran Rob Kiernan, who played in EFL League One for Southend United last season (and 3 games for Accy Stanley back in 2012), and Michael Orozco, and experienced 33-year-old who is in his second season with OCSC and played for many years in Liga MX. To have a pair of defenders with this type of experience at this tier is unheard of, and speaks heavily to why they have only allowed 12 goals in 13 matches. Frederick Due, who made is first start of the season in the July 25th match has taken over as the full time keeper, and is stopping an impressive 74.1% of the shots he has faced. The fact that he has only face 27 shots in 9 matches (3.00 per game) points to just how good the defense has been in front of him.
Phoenix Rising vs Orange County 9/26/20 Gambling Analysis
Last week the fine folks at DraftKings.com would have collected my money if I lived in a state where gambling was legal (can we please get this on the ballot soon Adrian Fontes?). It was the first time in as long as I can remember that I gave a bet the farm rating to a game and was wrong. This was a careless error on my part as even though I wrote about it, I completely ignored one of the cardinal rules of gambling, and I recommended betting against a team in a must win game. A big shout out to Mark (RisingLopes) for calling me out on this, and cashing in on a rare +525. As I said in my Accrington article, I am taking this week off and not betting a single kernel of corn on anything. That being said, my takeaway from what the casino is telling me with this line is that they are afraid of the draw. This is the first time I have seen a draw line drop below +300 for a Phoenix match in awhile. To top that off, seeing better than -200 at home on Phoenix is rare, and +350 for OCSC is still a fairly tasty payout. This is a stay away game in a stay away week, but if I had to gone with one it would be the draw.
Phoenix Rising vs Orange County Prediction
I see this game going one of two ways. One is the it resembles the games we saw in Orange County. That means physical, lots of long balls and playing 9 men behind the ball by OCSC, frustrated Phoenix Rising attackers, and unnecessary cards. If things go that route then that is exactly the game OCSC wants to play and you will probably see that draw I mentioned in the betting section, or as bad as Phoenix has been at defending the counter attack, another loss. The other way it goes is in the same direction as the New Mexico game earlier this year where Phoenix decided to come out and really flex their muscles on their home pitch, and just blow away a rival team that had given them recent trouble. After last week's frustrating results, and with the memory of the back to back tough trips to California still fresh in their minds, frankly, it would be disappointing if we don't see this kind of performance tonight.