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Half a world away, Phoenix Rising is still building

Owain Evans Avatar
November 29, 2023
Phoenix Rising club leadership pose with Claudio Chiellini of Juventus

REIGATE, England — Perched between a small lane and the countryside, there was a clubhouse. There was an astroturf field, where an eighth-tier side plies its trade. Between those two, Phoenix Rising head coach Juan Guerra stood.

“Can you feel your feet?”

“Nah,” Guerra replied with a laugh, despite several trips to stock up on hot drinks during the course of the afternoon.

The temperature, dipping below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, had gotten to him.

Flanked by an equally cold club president Bobby Dulle and former Major League pitcher-turned-sporting director Brandon McCarthy, Guerra watched as a collection of previously unknown players showed off what they could do.

Reigate is a commuter town, 45 minutes south of central London by train with a population smaller than Fountain Hills. In the winter cold, it couldn’t have felt further from 38th Street and Washington, Phoenix Rising’s home.

Finding lessons from outside the comfort zone of USL was the goal here for club leadership, with the trio taking in two European countries on a week-long trip.

“There was a couple things [we wanted to do],” Dulle said. “One, an opportunity to foster some relationships, and number two, to meet and identify players that could potentially help us out as we continue to build.”

First, they headed to Italy. Based out of Turin, they shadowed Juventus’ reserve side, in particular the work of Giorgio Chiellini’s brother, Claudio.

“The three days in Italy were incredible,” Guerra said. “Being so close to the field on the technical side, getting insight directly from sporting directors, from coaches and then seeing the way that they train and operate. Also, seeing the players, and how the players respond to those sessions. It’s been great.”

Forging those connections, particularly with one of the world’s biggest clubs, is a key focus for Rising.

“My favorite thing with getting involved with football now is just how global it is and how many things there are to learn,” McCarthy said. “It’s not the same process. It’s not like baseball where it’s 30 people doing the same thing. This is a lot of people doing a lot of different things you can learn from.”

Past experience of building those relationships, even from many seasons ago, continues to help the club achieve its goals to this day.

“You never know when you need relationships,” Dulle said. “We went down to Ecuador – what was that, six years ago – and we’re talking to a player right now that’s based in Ecuador. I haven’t spoken to those people in a couple of years, but they picked up the phone and returned my call really quickly when we had questions. 

“You never know. This world’s pretty small, and we don’t have the ability to have full-time employees all over the world, so these relationships are really important.”

“As I stepped into my role here, that’s the one thing I wanted to do more than anything,” McCarthy said. “Really push us forward in terms of international exposure, that people are aware of us, we do things the right way and that we’re looking. We want to be aware of players where people wonder where we even found out about this guy.”

Days of coffees, dinners and chats with club executives and agents proved one thing: it isn’t just Phoenix Rising trying to learn about clubs in the rest of the world. Those clubs in the rest of the world are trying to learn about USL, too, and already recognize the improvements to the level of play in recent years.

“You have clubs around the world, big time clubs that are looking at the U.S. now,” Dulle said. “It further motivates you to really work hard, and they start talking to you about some players in USL and what’s happening over there, and it’s pretty cool to see. 

“You’re talking to the likes of Juventus and they know about players in our league. I think it shows that we’re doing some things right in the United States, that our league is doing a great job and we need to keep growing, keep pushing to get better each day.”

“There’s an awareness of things,” McCarthy added. “There’s not a deep awareness and understanding, but people are watching everywhere. If you’re doing things the right way, and you have good players, people will find out about you very quickly.”

The three headed to London after their spell in northern Italy. Next up for Guerra and McCarthy will be a brief visit to Liverpool before returning home to Arizona.

For Wednesday, though, it was a trialist match in Surrey that had their attention.

Two sides of 11, plus options off the bench, lined up in Phoenix Rising’s formation, mimicking the playing style of the USL club. They were supposed to be wearing Rising colors, too, save for the jerseys being held by customs officers. That was just another setback on the trip, adding to flight diversions and late-running baggage.

That was behind them, though. Guerra, Dulle and McCarthy stood behind a waist-high fence, gloves on, watching and talking as the teams play out three thirty-minute periods.

“I know there’s a couple of guys here that Juan is interested in already, from what we’re watching,” Dulle said. “Maybe there’s another Zac Lubin in there that can help us win a trophy or two.”

“There’s one kid that we’re going to talk to right now,” Guerra said. “I just want to find out a bit more information about him. Obviously, I’ll go to the hotel and we’ll do our homework. I’ll probably watch a bit more video of him, but yes, I saw things that I thought could translate well to USL.”

As the afternoon came to its close, Guerra drew towards his final thoughts on the success of trip so far. To his side was McCarthy, clearly seeking to return some warmth to his extremities as he jumped on the spot, arms tucked into his 6-foot-8-inch frame.

Guerra laughed, feeling that same chill, before turning away as he tried to regain some composure.

“I said this on day one, when they brought me back: this organization is highly ambitious,” Guerra said. “This organization believes in continuous growth, development. 

“We won a championship two weeks ago, and we’re here in the cold, thinking about ways to get better and keep improving.”

Top image: Juan Guerra

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