The Monarchs face their first real test of the 2018 season as they travel south to Scottsdale to face Phoenix Rising in the popup soccer complex that they opened last season. In the two matches there last season the Monarchs managed only the 1-1 draw on June 24th that ended their record setting nine game win streak and a decisive 2-0 loss on September 16th.
Finishing 5th in the Western Conference last season, Phoenix emulated the Monarchs losing in penalty kicks to Swope Park Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. After rebranding before the start of 2017 season and changing coaches to Patrice Carteron in the middle of the season, Phoenix appears to have found stable footing to build upon for the first time in their five seasons in the league.
After shedding some age and bringing in several experienced USL players in the off-season, Phoenix Rising has two victories and a draw in their first three matches. However, the opening draw away at Orange County SC is perhaps the most impressive as it also stands near the top of the Western Conference early this season. The wins, both over bottom half teams like the Monarchs, were at home over OKC Energy FC and in Reno last weekend.
Head Coach Carteron is known to favor a 4-2-3-1 alignment, but has come out in a 4-1-4-1 on both road games this season. Regardless of formation, Rising tends to allow opponents a great deal of possession in their own half and begin to step up defensive pressure only as the ball crosses the center line. Disciplined on offense, they are among league leaders in the percentage of shots inside the box and in overall accuracy.
Although much of the discussion about Phoenix includes the co-owner and player Didier Droga, he has yet to make an appearance on the field this season and does not seem likely to appear tonight. At 40 years of age, Drogba did train during the preseason for the first time in four seasons, but has spent the season on the injury list with a undisclosed sickness. He did appear during training this week but had heavy media demands on his time due to youth events taking place this week in Arizona.
Chris Cortez, a journeyman USL player who spent a year with Chivas USA in MLS during the 2011 season, has been a leader as the sole forward with 3 goals in his six shots on target. The only other Phoenix Rising player with goals t his name is Solomon Asante, a Ghanaian winger who joined during the off-season, who also has three goals in his four shots on target. Billy Forbes, a leader with 10 goals at San Antonio last season, has yet to find the goal for his new side.
Carl Woszczynski is back in goal for Phoenix in his fourth season with the team and always seems to have good nights against the Monarchs. Josh Cohen, who took over as lead goalkeeper last season, has departed along with Peter Ramage and Jordan Stewart, two older experienced English players, leaving the defense in younger, but less experienced hands.
Look for there to be opportunities for the Monarch’s offense that will need to capitalize on if they hope to win or tie in this match. Although the Monarchs have seven goals in their first two matches, they have struggle to effectively combine in open play as the new signings like Maikel Chang, Mastanabal Kacher and Josh Heard struggle to learn the tendencies of the more established players like Chandler Hoffman and Sebastian Velasquez. This is has been slowed as many players with MLS contracts, such as Corey Baird, Ricky Lopez-Espin, and Pablo Ruiz, have made appearances with the Monarchs.
Andrew Brody, who made his first regular season start as a right halfback, last week is still learning the position, but improves each appearance. Michael Gallagher along with former Monarch Nick Besler and holding midfielder Justin Portillo, have looked well in central defense, but collectively the Monarchs have let in 4 goals against relatively weak opponents and will need to step it up this weekend on the road.
An early indication to watch for in this match is how Kalen Ryden, a new signing at left halfback who had two goals last week of set pieces, is able to combine and interchange on the left side with whoever starts at box-to-box midfielder and left winger. Both these positions have bee frequently occupied by RSL players although Masta Karcer and Josh Heard have looked good there in limited time on the field. Both Reno and Orange County found great success going up the left side of the pitch during Phoenix’s previous matches.
Also watch how the Monarchs are managing their defensive duties around the penalty box and in center part of their half. As mentioned above, Phoenix has shown great discipline and willingness to work and search for a high quality shot from a good angle close to the goal. If those shots come their way, they will be quite likely to take advantage and punish the Monarchs as they have other teams this season.
A final thing to consider, is the upcoming match against a weaker Seattle Sounders 2 squad in Tacoma on Wednesday. With two matches so close together in the early part of the season, we might see a lot of squad rotation and new players getting their first appearances. RSL also has a vital match on Saturday against Vancouver in the rain at Rio Tinto followed by a long trip to New York to take on NYCFC on Wednesday as well. This could serve to deepen the pool retained by Coach Petke and limit the selections set down to the Monarchs.