Phoenix Rising rescue late point, but draw does little to stem growing fan frustration

·4 min read

When Richmond Antwi’s strike hit the back of the net late Saturday night, Rick Schantz walked down the touchline, turned towards the crowd and raised his arms skyward in celebration. After trailing for 78 of the first 94 minutes, Rising had clawed back to a 2-2 draw, turning the corner from four consecutive losses.

That’s one interpretation — one Schantz was more than happy to embrace after the game.

“Let's look at it from a positive standpoint,” Schantz said. “We were down, 2-1, with 10 minutes to play and they fought back and scored a great goal and almost had another chance to win it there at the end. Things are gonna start to turn. We'll be all right.”

The other interpretation, of course, is that Rising still haven’t won since May 28. They’re in 11th place in the Western Conference, four points off a playoff spot. At the halfway point of the season, their nine losses are tied for the most since the club rebranded before the 2017 season. As for Saturday’s result? It was two dropped points against Orange County, a club that sits in second-to-last place in the conference.

As Schantz and his players applauded the supporters post-game, that was the overwhelming interpretation from the South End. “Hey hey, ho ho, Rick and Bobby have got to go,” came the chant, in reference to Schantz and General Manager Bobby Dulle.

According to supporters who spoke with The Republic after the match, the chant was borne out of a combination of frustration with the on-field product and with the club’s lack of support for reproductive rights following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last week. Whereas rivals like San Diego Loyal and Oakland Roots — as well as the league itself — came out with statements, Rising remained silent. And, in a press conference earlier this week, Dulle stirred controversy by deflecting multiple questions about the subject.

Phoenix Rising FC defender Darnell King (2), top, wins a header over Orange County SC forward Erick Torres (9), bottom, during the first half against Orange County SC on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Chandler.
Phoenix Rising FC defender Darnell King (2), top, wins a header over Orange County SC forward Erick Torres (9), bottom, during the first half against Orange County SC on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Chandler.

In the supporters section, a handful of fans held black signs with pro-choice mottos. During the national anthem, a group walked out of the stadium in what was described as “a moment of solidarity with women in Arizona,” only returning once the anthem was finished.

While Rising are not alone among Arizona sports teams in their silence, supporters explained their frustration as a product of the club’s community-based ethos.

“A lot of people didn't come here for soccer,” @PhxRisingNation, a prominent fan account, wrote on Twitter. “I sure ... didn't. I came here for the people. The community. I came here because the community lifted each other up and supported each other. They used their voice for those who weren't being heard.“

The fanbase’s frustration, though, is inextricable from Rising’s performance on the field.

On Saturday, that performance again left much to be desired. Both of Orange County’s goals — one in the sixth minute, one in the 52nd minute — came because Rising gave too much time and space to forward Milan Ilioski, the USL’s leading goal scorer.

On the first goal, none of the three defenders surrounding him stepped to Ilioski, allowing him to pick out a corner from 20 yards. On the second, he was left free at the back post off a corner. Again, no Rising defenders closed the space and Ilioski was able to smash a half-volley inside the near post.

“We're not closing the space between midfield and the back four and I think that's sometimes the lack of confidence,” Schantz said.

After Ilioski’s opener, Rising bounced back thanks to Darnell King. The right back expertly controlled a long ball from Aodhan Quinn with his chest, dribbled into the box and played it across goal, where Orange County’s Albi Skendi turned it into his own net.

But when Ilioski restored Orange County’s lead, Rising were again staring down the face of an eighth loss in nine matches. They got a reprieve in the 80th minute as Orange County’s Michael Orozco was sent off for putting his hands to the neck of Rising forward Claudio Repetto, but even with a man advantage, Rising were bereft of attacking ideas.

Then, in the 94th minute, the ball fell to Antwi, who had entered as a last-gasp substitute moments earlier. On the season, he’s played just 12.9% of available minutes.

If there’s a defining strength to Antwi’s game, though, it was this — ball on his left foot, 20 yards from goal, match in the balance.

“As soon as he got the ball, all the guys on the bench jumped up because we call him Richie Rocket,” Schantz said. “That guy can smash a ball. You couldn't have asked for a better guy at the top of the box to be shooting.”

True to form, Antwi ripped a shot inside the far post, sending the crowd into delirium and Schantz into a relieved walk down the touchline.

For one week, at least, the questions will subside. They will not, as the supporters made clear afterward, disappear.

Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at theo.mackie@gannett.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Fan impatience growing as Phoenix Rising continues to struggle