March is quickly approaching and for fans of US soccer that means that regular season kick-off for both the USL and the MLS. While Phoenix still waits for Don Garber and the MLS hierarchy to make up their mind about the final expansion spot, we are gearing up for another exciting run in the Western Conference of the USL – the second tier on the US soccer pyramid – with the goal of lifting the USL cup. For many teams in the USL, the offseason means a number of roster moves with most USL players signing onto teams for only a year. The coaching and front office staff for the Phoenix Rising have worked diligently since the end of the 2018 season and have managed to bring back 13 players. As the preseason comes to a close, the final roster appears to be working itself off with a great mix of a core of the returning team as well as some exciting new additions to the squad. This article will focus on four players (two returning and two new) that I believe will have a major impact on the success of Phoenix Rising this coming season.
Let’s start with a new addition at the back, A.J. Cochran. Cochran was drafted in 2014 in the first of the MLS Super Draft by the Houston Dynamo. In his rookie season, he played 19 times for Houston before going on loan in 2015 to the Charleston Battery. In 2016, he signed for Saint Louis FC where he racked up 49 appearances and scored one goal. Last year, he played in Atlanta. What impresses me most about Cochran is his discipline. With Saint Louis FC he received six yellow cards and at Atlanta he racked up three yellow cards in 30 appearances. Not only does he avoid being booked, but he has some pretty impressive defensive numbers. Looking solely at his numbers with Atlanta United 2, he lead the team in every defensive category. He made 144 clearances, had 61 tackles with 45 tackles won, won 214 of his 312 duels, and his aerial duel win percentage was 68%. A.J. is a solid defender and will partner well with Joey Farrell in the middle of the Phoenix Rising backline. Not only can he defend, but Cochran’s ability to move the ball from the center back position is impressive. During the home preseason games, he looked calm under pressure and moved to provide an outlet pass for his teammates. Overall, I think Cochran is a solid addition to this backline. With Farrell and Amadou Dia returning at left back, I believe this team will give up fewer goals than last season.
James Musa. This is a player that many Phoenix Rising supporters will know. Last season was Musa’s first with Phoenix, but he quickly became an important player. In 2018, he made 26 appearances for the club racking up over 2,000 minutes. Musa primarily plays the defensive midfielder position providing cover for our back four. A defensive midfielder controls the game and breaks up the opposition play. This is something that Musa does extremely well. In 2018, he made 15 key passes for the Phoenix Rising, but controlled the middle of the pitch making 42 interceptions as well as winning 57% of his duels and 78% of his aerial duels. This preseason I have been impressed with his decision making and passing. He looked calm under pressure in a game where the entire midfield was getting over ran by the Real Salt Lake midfield. Musa did lead the team in yellow cards last season, which is something that could become an issue. Although, I would venture to guess that most of those where strategic fouls by Musa that stopped the opposition from gaining a tactical advantage going forward. Overall, I think that we will see Musa anchor the midfield for Phoenix this season and help lead one of the best defensive teams in the USL.
Moving up the pitch, we come to a supporter favorite Solomon Asante. At 5’2”, Asante is the little engine for the Phoenix Rising attack. Primarily playing as a right winger, Asante had the fourth most passes on the team with a 77% pass completion rate. He completed 95 long passes at a completion rate of 54%. He also completed 65% on his passes in the opponent’s half of the pitch. He was also the second highest goal scorer last year with 14 goals and provided 10 assists. Outside of his contributions through passing and scoring, it is what he does with the ball at his feet. Because of his size, he has a low center of gravity which allows him to be very agile with the ball. Throughout last season, Phoenix Rising Sports Complex was used to Asante juking defenders with a quick dip of the shoulder and deceptive flick of the ball. Already in the preseason, we witnessed Asante spin Sporting KC defender Matt Besler as well as dribble through two Real Salt Lake players. An underrated aspect of Asante’s game might be what he adds on defense. He is willing to track back and is not afraid to challenge for the ball. In preseason we saw his defensive ability lead to a goal after he intercepted a pass from the Real Salt Lake backline and play a beautiful ball into Adam Jahn for a goal. This season I expect Asante to reach double digits in both goals and assists for a second year.
The final player on my list is the new striker, Adam Jahn. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Jahn before he signed with Phoenix. I knew that most of his career in the MLS was primarily a supporting role. He was drafted in 2013 by the San Jose Earthquake where he racked up 62 appearances in three years that included two loan spells to the Sacramento Republic. In 2016, he signed with the Columbus Crew, made 46 appearances, and scored 7 goals. Jahn comes to a team that lost their leading goal scorer from last season, Chris Cortez (19 goals), and Didier Drogba. I love this move by Jahn. At 28, he is hitting the prime of his career and has chosen to sign with an exciting franchise (a little bias) and take on the mantle as the number one striker. While some might not be excited about his scoring record, I think he is going to have a great season. Both of his goals in preseason for Phoenix were well taken. Against, Real Salt Lake he held his run perfectly allowing Asante to play a ball into space, which Jahn finished past Nick Rimando (one of the best goalkeepers to play in the MLS). His goal against Portland, he took a beautiful pass from Junior Flemmings off his chest and then turned Portland defender Claude Dielna before curling a shot to the far post for the only goal of the game. I believe that Jahn will have a record setting year playing with Phoenix Rising and would look for him to break the goal scoring record set by Cortez last season. He is extremely comfortable in the air and looks to have already built a solid relationship with Asante, Flemmings, and Johnson who will be providing a lot of service to Jahn. Overall, I think this was one of the best pick ups for Phoenix this offseason.
Junior Flemmings, Joey Calistri, and Mustapha Dumbuya
There are a number of other players that I could have put on this list that need mentioning. Junior Flemmings has looked excellent this preseason as well as Joey Calistri. Mustapha Dumbuya has been another excellent off-season addition at right back. He is quick, physical, and looks to get forward. Overall, the squad this season looks great. With the addition of one or two signings, I believe that we can repeat as Western Conference champions as well as win the USL Cup. Look for us also to make a deep run in the US Open Cup and be the first team to lift the Four Corners Cup; a supporter created regular competition between the teams from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.