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When Juan Guerra entered the locker room for the first time as Phoenix Rising head coach, something was off.
“I’m seeing the same players I saw last year, but the eyes looked different on day one,” Guerra said.
Guerra had served as an assistant coach on the Phoenix Rising team that finished atop the Western Conference in 2021. Much of that squad returned for 2022, but the results couldn’t have differed more.
Despite boasting one of the top squads in the league on paper, Rising currently sits several games adrift of the playoff places. That was enough to see Rick Schantz ousted as Rising coach and Guerra — who had been in the top job at Oakland — return to his former club.
“It’s a blue collar league, where talent is not enough,” Guerra said. “Talent is not enough to win and compete and be at the top in this league. But, we have a lot of talent. Now we have to make sure that we match up the intensity levels, the work rate, the work ethic that the other teams put in, and then talent does the rest.”
Just days after Guerra’s appointment to the role, Phoenix lost 3-1 in El Paso. However, players said his work with the team is helping Rising to overcome confidence issues in spite of the result.
“Juan has a very good demeanour about him, a very good aura about him,” left-back Ryan Flood said. “He demands a lot from us, but it’s always stuff that we are capable of doing, and I think that’s fantastic. Moving forward with him as a coach, I think that’s going to be a really good opportunity for players to showcase their abilities.”
“I think there’s always a little boost with the new manager, so I think we have a little bit of that positivity boost,” midfielder Aodhan Quinn said. “Then, the style of play: We changed it a little bit. It’s a little more possession-based, and I think guys are really positive about that.”
That boost hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coach who noticed the lack of confidence in their eyes.
“Now you start to see, their chest is starting to get big again,” Guerra said. “Their eyes are opening. They’re absorbing information, and confidence levels are going to keep getting higher and higher the more we train, the more we’re committed to what we want to do. Hopefully, when we can execute on gamedays and are grabbing positive results, it’s going to help out a lot for them in the confidence department.”
If Rising wants to rescue its season, the window for that improvement is increasingly narrowing. Already, Guerra is having to concede that a midweek clash with Rio Grande Valley is “key” if the team wants to make the playoffs.
For now, though, Guerra is looking to his own experience of confidence struggles as a professional player in other teams around the world to provide Rising with a helping hand.
“I sat in that locker room before as a player, and I know how they feel,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to starting injecting the confidence levels. We’ll start injecting a clear idea, a clear identity of how we want to do things, and then I have no doubt that the talent will do the rest.”
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