PHOENIX – Inspired by past failures and energized by a fresh roster, Phoenix Rising FC approaches the 2023 USL Championship playoffs with renewed hunger.
After missing last year’s postseason, Phoenix, seeded No. 6, heads west for Sunday night’s Western Conference quarterfinal match against third-seeded San Diego Loyal SC. While this marks San Diego’s final season in the league, Phoenix is looking to upend its rival, which closed out the regular season without a loss in its final six games.
Despite ending its regular season with a pair of losses, the desert’s most formidable soccer force is back on the postseason stage and “hungrier than ever,” according to Rising coach Juan Guerra, and determined to capture the club’s first title.
“This season has been a lot of work, but we’re not done yet,” Guerra said. “We have a checkmark in one of the objectives that was making the playoffs, but we’re not done yet. We’re even hungrier than before and we have more ambition than before. The players and the staff feel very confident.”
Guerra assumed the role of club manager during the previous season, taking charge after manager Rick Schantz and the club “mutually agreed to part ways” amidst a tumultuous 2022 season, 24 games in.
When Guerra took over the helm, the Rising held the 10th spot in the Western Conference with only nine games remaining, ultimately resulting in the Rising’s first-ever absence from the USL Championship playoffs.
With a full season under his belt, Guerra recognizes what he calls the “beautiful responsibility” of leading the organization to their sought-after USL title.
“Responsibility has been a word that we’ve been using since day one and that’s what it is to represent Phoenix Rising,” Guerra said. “When you’re representing this organization, the supporter groups, the fan base and the media, you’re not hoping that the team wins, you’re expecting that the team wins and that’s a big responsibility.”
Legacy in sports is a complicated narrative. Ultimately, the measurement of success is not defined by wins, but titles.
Before last year’s playoff absence, Rising dominated the league for three consecutive seasons. Yet, their inaugural championship appearance in 2020 was cut short due to the pandemic, and despite two first place finishes in the Western Conference, they were unable to advance beyond the semifinals.
Having joined the team in 2020, defender Darnell King has witnessed and dealt with these shortcomings firsthand, but he remains optimistic that the experiences from previous seasons can serve as valuable lessons to guide this year’s team towards playoff success.
“In this league anything can happen and you can’t take any game for granted,” King said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, anything can happen from top to bottom. I think it’s important that we stay humble and we come into this game ready to fight because in the playoffs, it comes down to who’s going to fight.”
Now the club seeks inspiration from its history in pursuit of that elusive first title.
“We understand our history, we respect it, and we embrace it,” Guerra said. “We don’t let our history weigh on us or create unnecessary amounts of pressure in the locker room, but we utilize our history to make us stronger, to make sure that we have a clear vision and a clear objective every single day. That’s the way we approach it, that’s the way we take it, and we absolutely love it.”
Making it to the postseason is a demanding accomplishment, and winning a championship is an even more formidable goal. The incorporation of more than 20 new players into the organization at the start of the season has brought its share of challenges.
“Not a lot of sleep, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of hard decisions, resiliency, a lot of belief, sense of belonging and most importantly, a lot of love for the players, for the staff, and for the organization,” Guerra said. “It hasn’t been easy, but the support of the fan base, the support of the organization when things weren’t going well or as fast as we expected, has been key to this whole process. So at the end of the day, it’s something that we’ve done together. This is a project that involves all of us.
“In only nine and a half months, all of them learned who we are, all of them have learned to love the club, and understand the responsibility that they have. To be able to create that in a short period of time is amazing.”
In a span of 32 weeks, Rising played a total of 34 matches, finishing the season with 12 wins, 12 ties and 10 losses. With no USL team ever managing an undefeated season, guaranteeing that adversity will arise multiple times throughout is completely factual.
Guerra pointed out that the 4-0 defeat in Sacramento in July appeared to mark a significant shift for Rising, as they found themselves in the 10th spot in the Western Conference standings.
Confronted with such a one-sided loss, a team can either draw inspiration from it or head toward a path of defeat. Rising wholeheartedly seized the opportunity, maintaining their presence in the top eight playoff positions ever since that encounter.
“The team made the decision to go down the route we were expecting to go,” Guerra said. “When things are going well, everything is easier for players, coaches and staff. But when things don’t go well, you have to be more resilient, support the players, challenge the players and step forward. We showed that we weren’t going to take a step back and hide.”
Even after suffering losses in the last two regular season games and recognizing the critical nature of momentum coming into the playoffs, midfielder Jose Hernandez holds firm in his belief that the team’s chemistry will pave the way for their success.
“Over the last few games, maybe we haven’t had that,” Hernandez said, noting the team’s three ties and two losses to end the season. “But this last week has been a positive reaction. Everyone’s aware of where we stand and where we are. It’s step one of where we wanted to be all year.
“I think over the regular season, it’s no secret that we’ve been a very good team both defensively and offensively. We’re top five in goals scored, top five in chances created. We know who we are and we’re just going to carry that into the playoffs knowing that we can go toe to toe with anybody.”
Guided by Guerra and supported by the dedication of players and staff, the club has effectively tackled these challenges, all while dealing with fresh faces and regular-season adversity.
“What we’ve done this year has been pretty awesome,” King said. “To have that many changes and to be able to come this far after the last two seasons that we’ve had, I think it speaks volumes to what these guys have had to endure and how they’ve stepped into the role and been in the locker room.
“We brought great guys that can adapt to the system quickly and have been prepared to turn it into something positive throughout the season.”
The remarkable togetherness within this year’s lineup is sure to generate enthusiasm among fans and, above all, the community.
“I think it’s not a secret that when this team is playing at its best, we’re able to play against any team,” forward Danny Trejo said. “We’ve shown that this season, obviously with some challenges, that the team is new and has a lot of new faces. But I think we’ve done a great job getting together with one another. What we need to keep doing is just continuing to play for one another and keep working hard. I think we’re able to accomplish what we want by not getting too ahead of ourselves.”
Trejo, positioned among the USL’s top goal scorers, has officially wrapped up his first regular season with the club. Following a remarkable debut regular season with the Rising, the marksman remains modest, recognizing that his early accomplishments are a product of the team’s collaboration, and he approaches the playoffs with a similar mindset.
“My personal goals for me have always been to grow myself by continuing to develop my game and get better,” Trejo said. “With that being said, this is a team sport, so when all of us are able to help each other, that’s when we’re able to accomplish more things. We’re excited to get to this point, we can’t wait.”
As the team gears up for the high-stake games ahead, the groundwork laid by Guerra and the constant player-to-player communication throughout the season erases the so-called playoff pressure.
“A lot of it starts from us at training every day and the goals we set up within ourselves,” Trejo said. “I think what’s been very important with this group is a lot of us sitting down with one another and talking about what’s coming and what we can do to help each other.
“For me, being a part of this, I’m excited and happy that the team is able to have situations like this. You can sit with any player and talk about how we can get wins and how we could have a better relationship on the field.”
King also recognizes Guerra’s impact, stating that this year’s playoff appearance is tied to the “fresh start” he has introduced to the team.
The USL Championship’s status as a top-tier Division II league worldwide is well-earned. With ambition comes the obligation to deliver, and the Rising hold a firm belief in their ability to have a successful postseason run.
“We are very humble because we understand that there are a lot of good teams, coaches and players in the USL this year,” Guerra said.“We need to make sure that we keep on pushing until the end and don’t take our foot off the pedal. We must make every day, week and game count.
Rising’s playoff message to the fans and community this year is simple: this postseason campaign is dedicated to them.
“We’re going to put a team together on the field that the fans feel proud of,” Guerra said. “A team that reflects the identity of our people and our supporters. A team on the field that when people come watch us play at home, they can go home happy, feeling proud and feeling well represented. A team on the field that when people are watching it from home, they can feel the same way.”
King added, “The boys are hyped, ready for the game and understand winner goes home. It’s one of those do or die moments. We fight for this badge, we fight for the city, we fight for this club, and we fight for our fans who have been there with us through thick and thin.
“We’re ready to go to war.”