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With 15 newly-announced Phoenix Rising players, the new preseason has proven a busy time at the club’s Wild Horse Pass training ground.
“We had a very long offseason that allows the opportunity to bring in players that fit the way we want to play, and we were able to gather a lot of talent, a lot of individual talent,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said. “Now it’s up to us as coaches and as a club to make sure that that individual talent becomes a collective.”
Rising succumbed to a 10th-placed Western Conference finish last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since rebranding from Arizona United. The results were enough to see Rick Schantz relieved of his coaching duties in August.
Guerra arrived from Oakland just a week later, and he immediately set about changing the team’s philosophy. Yet it was too little, too late. Rising won four of its remaining 10 matches but failed to make up sufficient ground.
“I give all credit to the guys that were here last year, when we walked in into that locker room and explained what we wanted to do,” Guerra said. “We understood, and we were very aware that it was very different from the way they’d been working and they’d been playing those first 20-plus games. We knew it was going to be demanding and challenging.
“At the end of the day, it’s not that they were not good players. No, they were very good players. I have a lot of respect and love for all of them. The way they absorbed the information and we finished playing the way they wanted to, it’s all credit to them. They respected the way we wanted to do things and they were trying their best.”
Now, Rising looks a lot different. Players have arrived from clubs as varied as Oakland Roots and Öster in Sweden.
“If you do a bit of research on each of the guys that we brought in, you’re going to see that they’re leaders,” Guerra said. “You’re going to see that they’ve won, either last year or in past years, so they’ve been successful before.”
Among those to join the squad is Eddie Munjoma, a full-back with experience playing in MLS for FC Dallas. According to Munjoma, it was Guerra’s pitch of what the squad would look like off the field that proved a major draw.
“One of the main things was a cohesion within the group, a family-type atmosphere,” he said. “I think the most successful teams, they have to have a pretty tight-knit bond with each other. That’s something that he’s always preached. He still preaches it now, protect your brother as he calls it. But I think that’s important.”
That ethos has been present in training through one week of preseason.
“I think the most important thing is just getting to understand each other both on and off the field,” Munjoma said. “The chemistry, as far as tactics and the sharpness of certain things, that will come with time.”
While large parts of the squad have been overhauled, a few players remain. Among those is 2022 captain Darnell King, who Guerra described as invaluable while welcoming new players.
“Darnell is a person that leads by example,” Guerra said. “He’s someone that leads on and off the field, and when he speaks, the guys listen. He’s not just a good soccer player. He’s a good person, and it was important to have someone in that locker room from day one that understands what Phoenix Rising is. When the new guys come in, they see it not just from the staff, but also from the players in the locker room, and Darnell does that for us very well.”
That said, Rising’s coach is still coy over whether King will retain the captaincy or not going into a new year.
“It’s not a gift,” Guerra said. “You don’t give this out. You don’t give out a captain’s armband. I want the guys to come in, train and I want the guys to spend time together. I want to see who’s going to grab it, who’s going to claim it. This is something that you must deserve. You must win it. This is not something that is a gift, so I want to see in the next few weeks, who are the guys that want to step up and be the ones that want to lead us.”
Now, the work begins. After a handful of matches in the Valley, the team will head south to Mexico City for a week of training at Pumas’ facility. That week away, Guerra said, will provide a massive boost in efforts to bring the squad together.
“When you don’t leave for preseason, you have the players training over here, and then they go home,” Guerra said. “Sometimes they spend time with each other, sometimes they don’t. Being able to become very close as a group off the field will be key this year.”
Quite how well Rising brings his side together will likely define the season’s success, Guerra pointed out.
“We have a lot of talent individually,” he said. “We were able to identify and were able to bring it over here. But at the end of the day, individual talent can only take you so far. In order to get where we want to be, we have to make sure that collectively, all that talent understands how we want to do things and how we will do things.
“I can guarantee you that, for us, one of the most important things is that we’re together, that we become a team that is very aware of how we want to play and want to do things, but we also become a family on and off the field. That’s going to be key to our success this year.”
Top photo: Arianna Grainey/Phoenix Rising FC
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