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Juan Guerra's legacy as he departs Phoenix Rising

Owain Evans Avatar
January 8, 2024
Juan Guerra led Phoenix Rising to a USL Championship title in his only full season with the club as head coach

After leading the club to its first USL Championship title, Juan Guerra has departed his role as head coach of Phoenix Rising FC.

According to sources, the Venezuelan, 36, has agreed a move to Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, where he’ll serve as the first assistant coach under Ben Olsen.

It ends 17 months of Guerra’s tenure at Phoenix Rising FC, the second club of his head coaching career. It was also his second stint with the Arizonan club, having previously served as an assistant coach.

When Guerra took charge, Rising was spiralling. The club, under the leadership of longtime head coach Rick Schantz, had slipped from its usual high standards. Rising sat outside the playoff places, with no end in sight to a poor run of form. Guerra came to steady the ship.

From the start, Guerra’s approach to man management differed from his predecessor.

He inherited a team whose spirits were broken, in a locker room that was undoubtedly broken as well.

“I’m seeing the same players I saw last year, but the eyes looked different on day one,” Guerra said at the time.

From his first interviews, he emphasized togetherness in his squad, and making his team into a family.

Juan Guerra gets stuck in at a Phoenix Rising preseason training session in Mexico City.
Juan Guerra gets stuck in at a Phoenix Rising preseason training session in Mexico City.

In preseason, it became clear that Guerra was finding an appropriate balance between keeping spirits high and attentions focused. One training session, he would lead with a smile on his face, hopping headfirst into exercises alongside his players. The next, he’d gather them in a circle in order to hammer home the importance of representing Phoenix, and their teammates, with honor.

Sources within and close to the squad have repeatedly pointed to Guerra’s leadership as one of the keys of Rising’s title run, with the majority of players fully buying into his vision of them both winning together and losing together as a collective.

Guerra himself views that as one of this biggest accomplishments: not just winning a championship, but the “love, respect and sense of belonging” in his squad.

Even some of those who were let go from Phoenix under Guerra’s watch have continued to highlight their regard for him as a head coach.

While man management was a critical component of Guerra’s spell in charge of Phoenix, it would sell him short to limit his legacy to just the culture he managed to cultivate in his locker room.

Guerra made changes to Rising’s playing style, focusing on a more possession-based style that saw the squad switch up formations to feature three center-backs. Unlike his predecessor, who for years had struggled to stick to an apparent desire to distribute more carefully from the goalkeeper, Guerra actually succeeded.

Under Schantz, Rising’s identity was primarily success. When failure set in, the question soon became: what exactly was that team’s identity any more? That showed in the final few months of his tenure, with tactics changed on a whim in what appeared little more than a desperate attempt to find anything that would stick.

Guerra’s squad was different. From week to week, his teams were recognizable. Critics would point to an excessive stubbornness at times, but the approach ultimately proved successful.

A scholar of the game, Guerra attained his U.S. Soccer Pro License at the conclusion of the 2023 season, making him one of a handful of coaches from across the country to achieve the pinnacle of coaching qualifications available in the United States. He is one of the youngest to have done so.

Undoubtedly, Juan Guerra leaves Phoenix Rising with an image not just of a team wedded to success, but as a forward-thinking club dedicated to developing itself.

He does so having turned down other opportunities that had presented themselves this offseason. He does so too with the belief that there was never going to be a right time emotionally to leave Phoenix behind.

Perhaps more importantly, he departs with the belief that a move directly into an MLS head coaching role was simply not going to happen from a USL team, and that to push himself for the future, he’d need to take a step forward.

It’s hard to tell where the team will go from here, especially given Guerra’s role in offseason recruitment and that his vision for the club’s future, not that of a replacement, is what was sold to recruits.

While he was in Phoenix, though, Juan Guerra delivered. Beyond just a historic first title, Phoenix Rising is in a better place for having had him at the helm.

Follow Owain Evans on Twitter

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