PHOENIX – Win or go home. It’s a postseason mantra that is often overused, but it’s also the hard truth.
Beyond just a mantra, for Phoenix Rising FC, this phrase ended their rivals’ existence, setting the stage for a showdown with second-seeded Orange County SC in the Western Conference semifinals of the USL Championship.
“I feel if there was a second team I could pick, it would’ve been Orange County,” Rising coach Juan Guerra jokingly said, following up on his comment from the previous week that if he could choose any team to play, he’d opt for San Diego. “It will be a proper football match to watch. I am sure that the league, the fans and the supporters of our side are going to enjoy watching.
“Hopefully we can put together a strong game plan that leads to a good result on the road because we are going to need to be at our best.”
In order to reach this weekend’s fixture, the Rising had to escape in dramatic fashion Sunday, securing a quarterfinal 4-3 win on the road against San Diego courtesy of a 119th-minute goal from forward Dariusz Formella. That match signaled the end of San Diego’s time in the USL.
Moving just 80 miles north along Interstate 5, the Orange squared off against El Paso Locomotive FC, winning 1-0 in a contest where the score was tight, but the statistics told a much different story.
With an all-time record of 13 wins, 9 draws and 9 losses against Orange County FC, the Rising have yet to taste defeat in their two matchups this season.
Nonetheless, lineups, formations, tactics and strategies will all see substantial alterations, driven by the do-or-die nature of the postseason. Still, a complete abandonment of regular-season strategies might disrupt the team’s cadence and synergy.
The Rising opted for a 3-5-2 formation in their playoff opener, a formation sparingly employed throughout the regular season. As part of this strategic adjustment, they chose to bring in Manual Arteaga, the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 goals, as a substitute, which led to Formella playing the center forward position.
“Tonight was a game that when we watched San Diego, we saw where the spaces were,” Guerra said when asked about tweaks in the starting lineup. “We identified that we want the nine to come more to those pockets, receive and turn.”
Guerra’s decision-making process stems from the team’s depth, allowing him to make vital adjustments throughout the playoffs depending on the opposition.
“We have 22 starters,” Guerra said. “We have been forced, when they are training and doing things well, to give more minutes to different players and rotate to make sure that the blood of the team’s body keeps pumping. That’s why making rotations and making sure that if a player is performing, you reward him with minutes. Having so many players available and in good form, allows us to put together game plans.”
The fact that Guerra is prepared to sit a top-10 goal scorer in the league based on matchups adds an element of curiosity to Saturday’s game. One thing we can be sure of is Guerra’s determination to do whatever it takes to come up victorious.
To emerge victorious, slowing down Milan Iloski – who is fourth in USL in goals scored with 17 and leads the league with 93 shot attempts – remains at the forefront, knowing his impact with the ball at his feet. Iloski, who is set to join Danish Superliga club FC Nordsjælland after the season, also leads the club with five assists and scored the lone goal in their playoff opener.
“Collectively, we need to make sure that we are together,” Guerra said. “We need to make sure that the players understand what it is that we want to do. Milan is a player that when he cuts inside, he wants to make sure that he shoots from everywhere you give him the opportunity to do so. If they are going to have a shot or take a shot, they need to earn it, it’s not something we are just giving to them.”
On Sept. 30, the Rising sealed their postseason berth with a 1-1 draw against the Orange in the third-to-last match of the regular season. Iloski found the net as the lone goal scorer for the Orange, extending his club scoring record.
Much like their playoff debut, the Orange adopted a 4-1-4-1 formation.
In a match where the Rising held a 56-43 possession advantage, the Orange took 13 shot attempts compared to Phoenix’s eight, with five on target as opposed to two for the Orange.
Despite the Rising’s possession advantage and league-leading conversion rate during the regular season, the challenge lies in facing a club that has allowed only 39 goals with 14 clean sheets. These statistics tie the Orange for the fourth-fewest goals conceded in the USL, positioning them third in clean sheets.
As a team that found it tough to craft goal-scoring opportunities in the closing regular-season games prior to the quarterfinal playoff, they must concentrate on generating several chances.
“The last three or four games of the regular season we were scoring goals, but not a lot,” Formella said. “We were playing a little bit differently but in San Diego we also played a little differently. Everyone knew this game was about playing in the next round or going home. There was extra motivation, it was a big game with huge pressure and maybe that woke us up.”
When reviewing the opening match of the season between these two sides, it becomes apparent that the makeup of both rosters have undergone considerable changes.
The game on May 20 saw the Rising claim a 1-0 victory on the road, with Manuel Arteaga being the sole scorer of the match.
At that point in time, neither Formella, Panos Armenakas, nor John Stenburg were part of the Rising. Typical starters Edwin Munjoma and Carlos Harvey, though on the bench, didn’t see any action on the field. The starting lineup for the opening-round playoff game featured all five players.
Prior to the showdown, the Orange had announced their decision to part ways with coach Richard Chaplow, who was a member of the Danish technical team during the 2022 FIBA World Cup. They chose assistant Morten Karlsen as his replacement.
With just two victories before Chaplow’s dismissal, Karlsen orchestrated a complete turnaround, propelling them to win 15 games from that moment on.
“This is one of my favorite teams in the USL championship,” Guerra said. “The things that they do tactically, how organized they are, the flexibility that they have during the offensive phases of the game, but also how compact, intense and aggressive they can be on the defensive side, it’s impressive. Win. Win. Win. They didn’t lose for a while and that doesn’t happen by coincidence.”
The club’s lineup also didn’t include Thomas Amang, who wrapped up this season with eight goals coming off a career-best year in the previous season.
Much like the initial match, the Rising maintained an identical possession advantage of 56-43. However, they registered only eight total shots as opposed to the Orange’s 16, with three on target compared to the Orange’s four.
Examining their regular-season encounters, it’s evident that the Orange have yet to secure a win against the Rising.
Yet, their standing as the second seed is not without reason, attributed to their impressive backline and goalkeeper Colin Shutler, alongside one of the top goal scorers and threats in the USL.
When questioned about the team’s playoff potential after the San Diego match, Guerra reiterated the team’s commitment to taking it one game at a time.
“We go to Orange County now and that’s all that’s in my head,” Guerra said. “One game at a time, it’s always been like this and now it’s not going to change.”
Although the organization is fully aware of the mission ahead, the players are well aware of this club’s potential, even as the lowest remaining seed in the west.
“Every game, step by step, but we have a very strong group,” Formella said following the San Diego game. “If we are focused, if we are disciplined, and if we train well, nobody in this league can catch us. We are our biggest opponent. If we are going to be 100 percent ready, every minute, every day, I’m telling you there is no team in this league who can stop us.”
Armenakas added, “We can win it. We showed (last Sunday) that coming into a hostile environment. … we know that we are more than capable to go on the road and win and we showed that, going down multiple times, going up, coming back in the 90th minute, extra time, we have the team to do it.”
The Rising’s recent social media communications prominently state “” and here’s why.
“It’s part of the culture that we have and it’s who we are,” Guerra said. “We are a team and family that go under the same core values. We are an organization that doesn’t quit. We push forward in moments of adversity and when people count us out, we take a step forward and we say we are here.”
The match is scheduled for kickoff Saturday at 7 p.m. PST at Irvine’s Championship Soccer Stadium, with action being broadcast live on ESPN+.