PHOENIX – Cinderella stories add a touch of magic to the world of sports. From the stunning upsets to the underdog tales to the teams that hit their stride at the perfect moment, Phoenix Rising FC has remarkably embodied all three characteristics en route to its improbable berth in Sunday’s USL Championship Final.
Once again, the Rising demonstrated their knack for late-game heroics, this time netting in a game-winner during stoppage time of the Western Conference Finals last Saturday, sealing their impressive sweep through California and booking their trip to the USL title game against Charleston Battery.
Just a few hours before Emil Cuello’s dramatic 92nd-minute goal on the road upended top-seeded Sacramento Republic FC, 2-1, Charleston Battery raised the Eastern Conference trophy following their own 2-1 victory over fifth-seeded Louisville City FC at home.
A truly remarkable sequence of events continues to unfold as both Phoenix and Charleston, absent from the playoffs last year, now stand on the grandest of stages.
“It speaks high volumes of both organizations,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said Thursday, as his team prepared for what would be the club’s first championship. “These organizations were brave enough to make difficult decisions, to take a step forward and understand that we live in a society that doesn’t believe in processes anymore.
“Everything needs to come fast and quick and needs to happen in an instant. Even though that’s not real life, we understood that, took a step forward, just like Charleston, and it paid off.”
Fueled by a renewed hunger for success and inspired by their playoffs nightmares from years past, the Rising make a triumphant return to the final, as their sole title appearance in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think it’s a great feeling,” Rising forward Danny Trejo said. “It’s a team’s goal from the beginning of the season. Every time you’re able to put your team in this situation, it’s a great feeling. We are very happy, we’re proud of our hard work, but we also know it’s unfinished business until we win this last game.”
Historically, no USL team had succeeded in beating the top three seeds while playing away games on their path to the final. The Rising, under the most challenging circumstances, accomplished this exceptional feat. Now, they are in a position to replicate it once more this Sunday in Charleston.
“Everyone is pretty excited,” said Panos Armenakas, a Rising midfielder. “We try to keep the same routines as much as possible and try not to change much. We know it’s a final, we know there is going to be extra emotion, but we have to continue doing what got us here, so that’s the plan.
“You would be naive to not treat it like a championship game and a do-or-die. It’s not getting knocked out now, it’s lifting that trophy and who wants it more and who wants that feeling. We know what that Western Conference title felt like and how we felt after that game. Being on top of the West is one thing, being champions of the USL is a completely different thing.”
Charleston, too, defied expectations after finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference last year.
Yet, during this playoff run, the Battery embarked on a notably different journey to reach this point, hosting three lower seeds due to the unanticipated first-round departures of the top two Eastern Conference seeds.
Following a resounding 5-0 win over Indy XI in the quarterfinals, the third-seeded Battery maintained their momentum with a 2-1 semifinal win against Birmingham Legion FC.
Not only are they leading all teams in these playoffs with nine goals, the Battery have also yet to fall behind in any of their playoff matches.
A pivotal aspect of this dominance has come from players delivering when it matters most. Multiple attacking players can pose a threat, with three of them hitting their peak form at just the right time.
The Battery’s three playoff fixtures – lone striker Augustine Williams, former Rising attacking midfielder Arturo Rodriguez and deep central midfielder Emilio Ycaza – have each scored twice. With 13 goals in the regular season, Williams added to his already impressive tally, but it is Rodriguez and Emilio who have doubled their goal totals in these playoffs alone.
Accompanying these three are two wing players who have exhibited incredible prowess with the ball at their feet.
Despite being just 17 years old, right winger Fidel Barajas has proven throughout the season that age is irrelevant, notching five goals and leading the league with 11 assists.
The budding sensation earned a spot on the prestigiouslist and was recently selected to the USL All-League second team. Next Generation, published by the Guardian, highlights 60 of the most promising young soccer talents globally.
However, for the second consecutive game, Charleston will go about life without its star player, as Barajas received a call-up on Nov. 1 to join the Mexico U-17 National Team for the U-17 World Cup in Indonesia.
To fill the role left by the Concacaf U-17 Championship winner, Charleston will field Tristan Trager in the right wing of the Battery’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Trager, with five goals this season, may not deliver the same offensive spark as Barajas, but he has unquestionably shown his effectiveness when entering the game as a substitute.
Adding to Charleston’s lethal attack is their impressive 18% conversion rate, trailing only one percentage point behind the Rising, who happen to lead the league.
With just one goal separating them from their playoff opponent, the Rising also feature three players, each with two goals. Center forward Dariusz Formella, USL All-League first-teamer Trejo and substitute Cuello have all scored twice in these playoffs, particularly in pivotal moments.
“Every time you have someone that can score goals from either side of the pitch, as we have shown that we can, it’s always easier for myself and for the other players at the top line,” Trejo said. “We know that if they guard one of us, the other guy is going to be open.”
Adeptness in switching play, delivering pinpoint crosses and excelling in receiving the aerial ball has created numerous goal-scoring opportunities for the trio and the entire team.
“Ultimately I’m a player who loves to run in from behind,” Trejo said. “Carlos (Harvey) has that look that every time, he is able to put the ball on his right foot or left foot, he is able to look behind the backline. I’m always looking for those passes and I’m glad we have that connection.”
Even with midfielder Harvey leading the club in playoff assists with two, right forward Armenakas, who, despite not securing an assist, has made his mark by delivering 11 crosses into the penalty area. Ultimately, a connection should be made sooner or later.
“We have a certain style of play,” Armenakas said. “We try to stick to that as much as possible. But at the end of the day, we have to play what the game gives us and if certain teams are going to take certain things away, we have to find other ways to hurt them. We’re a good team and can hurt you in different ways. We can hurt you through possession, over the top, counter attacking and defensively.”
While the attacking halves have been flourishing, the bottom line is, defense wins championships.
“Especially against a team like Charleston, you want to try to not give them any opportunities or anything easy,” Guerra said. “Then you have to go and chase the game. Defensively, in the final, we need to be focused, we need to be tuned in and we need to be intense and aggressive. That’s going to be key on Sunday.”
The outcome, whether a win or a loss, hinges on the defense, beginning with Rising goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo, nominated for, and extending to the three central defenders — John Stenberg, Alejandro Fuenmayor and tackles leader Mohamed Traore with 11.
As the Rising make their way back to South Carolina for a rematch of the first regular-season match, overcoming this formidable road atmosphere will once again present a notable challenge. Given the limited availability in the away section, the club won’t be on its own, as a significant number of supporters are getting ready for the cross-country trip.
“It means a lot,” Armenakas said. “We know we have some of the best fans in the league and make the effort to travel. The players, the team, and the club have built a really good connection with them. Hopefully they enjoy the weekend, whether they are watching at home or whether they are traveling, they can cheer us on.”
In the days leading up to their opening playoff match, the Rising’s playoff message was straightforward: This postseason campaign is dedicated to the supporters, fans and community.
The club is “ready to go to war” once more, and that they will do.
The match is scheduled for kickoff Sunday at 5 p.m. (MT) at MUSC Health Stadium, with action broadcast live on ESPN2.