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Why Phoenix Rising FC’s title defense is being held back by its attack

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 06/21/24, 1:40PM EDT


Rising’s scoring has continued to slide from 2019-21 peak as it enters Championship Final rematch with Battery

With 17 goals in 15 league games this season, Phoenix Rising FC is currently on course for its highest average strike rate in a season since the 2015 campaign. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC

At its peak between 2019 and 2021 – during which time it won a Players’ Shield, finished top of the Western Conference twice, and advanced to a USL Championship Final – Phoenix Rising FC was a goalscoring machine.

  • POWERED UP: In 2019, the club set a single-season record for regular season goals with 89 tallies, averaging a goal every 34.4 minutes.

  • SHORT-TIME SUCCESS: In 2020’s abbreviated campaign, it managed to lower that scoring rate to the almost absurd level of a goal every 31.4 minutes.

  • DOUBLE TIME: Rising’s pace slowed slightly in 2021 as it finished top of the West again, but it still averaged more than two goals per game while scoring at a rate of a goal every 42.4 minutes.

Of course, that sort of productivity was never going to last. It’s almost a miracle it sustained itself through three seasons.

But since then, Rising has seen its scoring diminish to the point where it’s the current flaw that’s hindering its chances of defending the title it won in historic fashion last November.

Entering Saturday night’s Championship Final rematch with the Charleston Battery (10:30 p.m. ET | ESPN2), Phoenix is averaging its second-highest strike rate in a season in club history at a goal every 79.4 minutes. That trails only the 2015 campaign’s mark of a goal every 81.3 minutes, when the side finished 10 points out of the playoff positions.

Thankfully for Rising, in contrast to then, its defense has been ready to pick up the slack.

Phoenix Rising FC goalkeeper Rocco Ríos Novo has remained among the USL Championship's elite this season, helping the defending title holders remain in good position for a postseason return. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC

  • TIGHTEN UP: In comparison to its opening 15 games a season ago, Head Coach Danny Stone’s side has conceded four fewer goals. It has also reduced its number of shots faced and shots on target faced as well.

  • BRICK HOUSE: Part of that reduction in goals conceded is through allowing less shots, but the other is Rocco Ríos Novo continuing to do Rocco Ríos Novo things. After posting a -6.7 Goals Prevented mark last regular season, he’s currently at a -2.46 rate this year, putting him in the top four in that category in the league among regular starters.

At the same time, it feels like Rising needs to find more production in the attacking third if it’s going to be a threat this season. Remi Cabral currently leads the side with six goals, while Dariusz Formella has three, with Cabral having been sidelined since his departure against Las Vegas Lights FC on June 2.

Neither of those two are likely to approach the numbers Danny Trejo and Manuel Arteaga put up last season for the side before their departures – Trejo to Poland in free agency, and Arteaga via transfer to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he currently has nine tallies in the league this season.

So, what’s to be done?

The obvious thing would be to find a solution from within, and the numbers would indicate that’s reasonable. Phoenix ranks in the top half of the league in shots (180) and shooting accuracy (49.6%) but is below average in conversion rate (12.2 percent). Even getting close to last season’s conversion rate of 18.3 percent in the second half of the season would provide a significant boost.

There’s the other option, too, of bringing in a player who can deliver an attacking boost from elsewhere. This worked to solid effect with Formella last summer, with the Polish forward scoring six goals across the regular season and playoffs in 17 appearances, and a team-best strike rate of a goal every 148.2 minutes to boot.

However Saturday night’s clash with the Battery turns out, we know Phoenix’s goal is to be in position for silverware at the end of the season.

The next few weeks could tell us how they’re going to accomplish that. 

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