MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. – As Emil Cuello walked up to the penalty spot, the roar of the Charleston Battery home crowd at Patriots Point Soccer Complex was deafening.
Fans whistled, screamed obscenities, waved flags, slammed thunder sticks together and did anything to create a wall of noise in an effort to distract Cuello, who was taking Phoenix Rising FC’s first penalty in the shootout that would decide the fate of the USL Championship Final on Sunday.
Cuello fired his penalty straight at Charleston goalkeeper Trey Muse, as did the next penalty-taker, Daniel Krutzen. Charleston converted both of their first two to.
The crowd went berserk. The drums and chants of the Charleston fans echoed around the stadium as the Rising players looked distraught. Cuello looked inconsolable.
Rising would have to make three consecutive penalties to win, and hope that goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo, who had only saved one penalty kick all season, could save at least two with the championship on the line.
It looked as if Rising were once again going to fall just short in the playoffs.
Yet this is a team that thrives when all odds are against them. And they defied them again, prevailing 3-2 in the penalty shootout to win the franchise’s first USL Championship.
“These guys don’t know how to die,” Phoenix Rising coach Juan Guerra said. “These guys don’t know how to give up. I’m a stubborn person, but these guys are way more stubborn than I am.”
Their miraculous playoff run has been characterized by an ability to pull off the unexpected with their backs against the wall. Rising scored the winning goal in all three of their playoff wins in the last five minutes of the game or later. All three of those games were away from home and against higher-seeded opponents.
Against Charleston, they trailed 1-0 for the majority of the match before John Stenberg headed in the equalizer with seconds left in regulation to send the game to extra time.
A nervy, scoreless extra time led to penalties – the first USL final to feature penalties since 2011 – and Rising immediately found themselves on the back foot.
However, much as they have throughout the postseason, they turned it around. Renzo Zambrano rocketed his penalty into the roof of the net before Leland Archer’s weak penalty rolled past the post. 2-1.
Erickson Gallardo tiptoed his way toward the ball before calmly slotting it past Muse. The pressure was on Charleston to answer back. Chris Allan’s unconvincing strike was saved by Rios Novo, only his second penalty save of the season.
Now it was down to sudden death.
Up stepped Manuel Arteaga. The Rising striker was phenomenal in the regular season, scoring 15 goals and recording six assists, but had found himself relegated to a bench role during the playoffs.
Arteaga, who had already missed a penalty this season and had lost his starting place in the most crucial part of the season, was entrusted by Guerra to take the most important kick of Rising’s existence.
Arteaga stuttered his run up before firmly planting the ball into the net. Muse in goal had no chance.
The 21-year-old Rios Novo had the chance to etch himself into Rising lore. A save would win Rising the championship and end the years of hurt.
Despite dominating the regular season, Rising fell short when it mattered year after year. They lost in the final in 2018, and then underwhelmed in 2019 and 2021, losing to lower seeded opponents at home. They made the final in 2020, but it was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Rios Novo had the chance to right the wrongs of the past, and exorcise the demons that had plagued Rising teams for years.
Charleston’s Derek Dodson walked up to the spot with the weight of the world on his shoulders. In goal, Rios Novo was shuffling from side to side, eyeing up his opponent 12 yards away.
Dodson went low and hard to Rios Novo’s right, but the young keeper guessed the right way and pushed his penalty onto the post. It was 3-2 Rising on penalties.
Rios Novo had won the game for Rising
“He’s very calm,” said Rising forward Danny Trejo. “Rocco works hard every day at practice. Anytime he gets the opportunity to prove it, he did it. Today he was there for the challenge, and he deserves it.
“This was his moment to shine, and he did it.”
After nine years of hurt, Rising would finally lift the USL Championship trophy.
Cue the emotions.
“This is the number one night of my career by far,” Guerra said. “Seeing players cry after the game, seeing the staff crying after the game. Being able to hug my wife and my kids after the game was unbelievable.”
Players and staff rushed the triumphant Rios Novo. The Charleston fans behind the goal were speechless. Some took to throwing bottles and cups at the celebrating players.
This Rising team had done what the all-conquering teams of the past could not do, and they did it in the face of serious adversity.
Stenberg, Rising’s sole goal scorer in regulation,and was only able to eat food the day before the final. He had to come off after 90 minutes due to exhaustion.
“It’s hard to find words right now,” Stenberg said in a postgame interview on ESPN2. “This season has been up and down for us, playoffs as well. We’ve been down in games, come back late. Everyone contributed to this performance and all these playoff games. I’m happy and super proud of this team, this club, this organization, the fans.”
Coming into the season, expectations were low. Guerra was the third-youngest coach in the league and was managing a team featuring 21 new players.
Their inexperience as a unit showed at times.
They hovered on the edge of the playoffs all season, even falling out of playoff spots in late July after a 4-0 loss to Sacramento Republic FC. Rising would rebound immediately, only losing three of their next 12 games and clinching the playoffs.
Guerra attributed their ability to mount improbable comebacks to the difficulties Rising encountered during the regular season.
“It’s when adversity comes, you don’t back down,” Guerra said. “You keep pushing forward. When adversity came with us in the final stretch of the season, losing those last two games, losing 4-0 in Sacramento, losing to Vegas at home with a packed stadium and on Dollar Beer night, those were nights we pushed forward.
“Those were nights that I challenged the players to be ready on Monday and come in and we did not let them have it. And I think that builds resilience.”
The determination and sheer will demonstrated by the Rising players over the course of the playoffs surprised even Guerra himself.
This is a group of savages,” Guerra said. “I’ve never seen something like this. I’ve never seen it. Tonight we should be proud of what we have done.”
Rising finally ended their playoff curse on Sunday evening, but Guerra’s hunger is not yet satiated.
“I have many dreams,” Guerra said. “Tonight, one of them came through. (Winning the final at home) is another dream not just for me, but also for a lot of people, and we should try to make a reality.”