With the first half of the season (and a little more) in the books, your Firebird Rising staff has collaborated to come up with a mid-season report card.
Front Office: A
Only the signature signing of The King, Didier Drogba, could possibly eclipse the construction of a beautiful. brand-new football complex for Rising FC fans to call home. The new stadium, with capacity for 6,200 fans, has been filled multiple times this season. Three luxury boxes allow the well-heeled to remain well-cooled, and the complex provides easy ingress and egress from major valley freeways. The dedicated supporter section continues to be the most popular place to watch the game, but any seat in the house seems to be a good one.
In a bit of a contractual coup, Drogba was signed in April and joined the team in June. The complete details of Drogba’s contact are unknown, but the 2 year deal comes with an ownership stake, making Drogba the first player-owner in the USL.
Marketing efforts have stepped up all across the valley, with player meet-and-greets on a regular basis at Valley retail locations, tables at health fairs, and a presence at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. H. Jose Bosch (Media Relations) and Heber Valenzuela (Community/Partners Relations) have created a strong and intimate bond with fans and media alike, and have been excellent public-facing representatives of the team.
For all these reasons, and more, the FO gets an A.
You may feel that this is a bit of an unfair grade, and we would agree with you. The cumulative results in the standings are underwhelming, but placing blame on a particular manager is not warranted under the circumstances.
Rising FC started the year with Frank Yallop, traversed through a long stretch with an interim coach, Rick Schantz, and near the mid-term installed Patrice Carteron as Head Coach. The front office’s signing of Yallop as head coach last year seemed to signal an imminent MLS bid, as Yallop had significant experience at the MLS level. His untimely departure from the team temporarily put the club in the hands of Schantz, former FC Tucson coach. Schantz’ energy was great, but there is a chasm of experience between a successful coach at the Premier Development League and a coach that lead his team to the MLS Cup. With Patrice Carteron now fully installed, we expect more consistency to come from the team, at least as soon as the coaches can decide on a more predictable week-to-week lineup.
The shift from 2016 starter Carl Woszczynski to Josh Cohen was a bit of a surprise to experienced observers, but it turns out the surprise has been very pleasant. Cohen has 45 saves on the season in his 15 appearances, and has conceded 23 goals on 68 shots faced. For his efforts, Cohen has made USL Team of the Week once, and also was nominated for Save of the Week. Unfortunately, Cohen has only one clean sheet to his name, but Firebird Rising staff attributes this to an unsettled defense.
The defensive third continues to confound fans across the valley. Senior defenders Peter Ramage and Jordan Stewart have been generally solid at center-back, but Ramage has a step slow when forced to track speedy forwards. He is excellent in both his own box and the opponent’s, when the Firebirds are trying to convert a set piece.
Kody Wakasa, a rookie who found success at Cal Poly both in the center of the defense and as a holding mid, has fielded the majority of fan frustration on the back line as he learns the right back position at the next level of soccer.
Late addition Amadou Dia gave the spark that triggered Drogba’s initial goal as a Firebird, but that spark fizzled when coaches moved him to center back. Dia performed well again at left back against San Antonio, and looks like our best starter when deployed out wide. He has displaced Victor Vasquez at left-back, a player who has shown potential moving forward, but who has been vulnerable in defense.
Visibly absent for most of the season has been 2016 fan favorite and second-year player Uchenna Uzo. Uzo has seen limited action while he recovers from an ankle injury. AJ Gray, JJ Greer, and Jordan Gibbons have each received starts at right back, and with the most recent start going to Gibbons, that side of the defense appears now to be a question mark.
Phoenix Rising does not have the highest goals against average in the league, but in the absence of an elite attack, the concessions have been costly. The biggest issues for our backline have been dealing with pacey counter-attacks, and conceding ill-advised penalties. Until these issues are fixed, the Firebirds will continue dropping crucial points in the playoff chase.
It has been very difficult to grade our midfielders, as we have rarely started the same group on a weekly basis. Shaun Wright-Phillips has been the most consistent performer, and quickly re-gained his incredible chemistry with Didier Drogba. Luke Rooney and Alessandro Riggi performed admirably in the early-going, but injuries to both players seriously halted the team’s momentum. Matt Watson has been a solid starter for the Firebirds, and Blair Gavin has shown promise in occasional appearances. Midseason signings Eric Avila and Eder Arreola have made a positive impact at times, but none have been consistently in the starting XI.
The biggest issue for this group has been holding consistent possession, and making the necessary passes to create dangerous attacks. We have lost the possession battle most nights, and too often our entire offensive threat comes from set pieces, long balls to Drogba, and crosses from the wingbacks. The loss of Luke Rooney has really hurt in that respect.
Much like the midfielders, the Firebird forwards have been an incredibly mixed bag. On one hand, Omar Bravo and Mike Seth have combined for one USL goal this season. Considered our two best strikers on opening night, both have fallen out of favor with Patrice Carteron. Conversely, Jason Johnson has exceeded all expectations with a career-high four goals. The Jamaican scored a crucial brace against Colorado Springs, the winning penalty at Los Dos, and a stylish goal against OKC Energy. He earned USL Player of the Week honors after willing the squad to victory over the Switchbacks.
Any mention of the forwards would be incomplete without Drogba. The Ivorian legend saves this grade from being a C, and each of his four goals has been critical. Drogba has also been an excellent distributor when the opportunities have presented themselves, especially to Wright-Phillips. Lastly, Arizona United holdover Chris Cortez has shown promise in his appearances. Cortez missed over a month due to injury, but has shown he deserves a spot in the rotation. His goal against Swope Park and near-goal against San Antonio show what he can do.
What do you think? Hit us with your takes in the comments below!