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CHARLESTON, S.C. — A chance at redemption on the line.
2020 was supposed to be that opportunity. Phoenix Rising had fallen at the last hurdle in 2018, in what should have been one final trophy for Didier Drogba. The storybook ending never happened, and instead, it was on Rising’s 2020 team to get the job done over Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Then, it all came crashing down.
“It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” former Rising defender and current Charleston Battery center-back A.J. Cochran said.
It hadn’t been easy at any stage. The new protocols, testing players and staff at every opportunity. The difficult travel arrangements, forcing bus journeys and restricting rules on air travel. The players dealt with isolation, cutting themselves off from the world outside of their team.
“That was a tough year mentally for everyone, including the staff,” Rising goalkeeper coach Cory Robertson said. “I mean, everyone in the world had a tough year that year.”
Rising prevailed through all of that, even if it proved difficult at times. That difficulty only increased as a national spotlight fell on Phoenix Rising for unsavory reasons. In the end, star winger Junior Flemmings was suspended for the entirety of the playoff push after using a homophobic slur. Then-head coach Rick Schantz was out for several weeks after appearing to defend it, live on the broadcast.
But the push, fight and desire came from the playing staff. Nothing was going to extinguish that.
“Training sessions were a joy because it was them pushing each other more so than anybody else,” Robertson said. “Them talking about tactics. Them talking about set pieces, and them talking about emotion. Them talking about how they wanted to do things as a team, before the game, after the game, during the game.”
On the field, everything was going according to plan. The results weren’t convincing, but they were enough, with two going the distance to kicks from the mark. One last matchup with Tampa Bay Rowdies was all that stood between Phoenix Rising and the one thing it had yet to win in USL: the playoff final trophy.
Then, the tests came in. At first, it was isolated, just a couple of Rowdies coaches and one of their players. The next morning, that changed, and multiples more joined the list of sidelined Tampa Bay players.
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Cochran said. “We were hoping that we were still going to have some way of playing the next day, or maybe a week later, but that wasn’t one of the options that was given to us. The option was pretty outrageous in my opinion.”
After finding out that the match was off thanks to someone bursting in at the breakfast table just the day before the game, Rising’s players were asked if they’d play the match weeks later. Ultimately, the players voted down that idea.
“The tragic thing is really, four or five guys had international duty coming up in two weeks, and then three or four of them are from overseas,” Robertson said. “I mean, they had sat in their room for four to six weeks, hearing about family members, illnesses and passing away. It really got to them.”
The 2020 final would ultimately never be played. Both teams were given the title of ‘finalist’, and the clock ticked over. In 2021, Tampa Bay got their chance at lifting the trophy, but fell at home to Orange County. Rising didn’t make it out of the first round.
“For everything that went into it with COVID and the amount of stress, pressure that COVID brought onto the league and the team, for us to fight through that season the way we did was incredible,” Cochran said. “To get all the way to the final and then to be cut short, it hurt. It felt like we were robbed a little bit by COVID.”
Close friends at war
“I don’t know if this is a good word to use, but for 90 minutes, I’ll hate him on Sunday,” Charleston Battery coach Ben Pirmann said. “There’s no room for hate in this world, so I don’t hate him, but the dislike will be very strong.
“I want him to fail miserably on Sunday, just like he does for me and then when it’s all over, we’ll be pals again.”
Both Pirmann and his Phoenix Rising counterpart, Juan Guerra, are young head coaches. Pirmann had taken the job at Memphis on an interim basis when Rising’s playoff run came crashing down in 2020 — his first as a head coach at USL level.
As some of the younger coaches in the league, both Pirmann and Guerra have found themselves hitting off a friendship.
“He and I became friends at the beginning of last year,” Pirrman said. “We played Oakland, kind of wrote him a little letter, shared my number. We ended up catching up a few times, and then we’re doing a coaching course. We’re doing the Pro course this season together.
“We’ve been really close. You know, I think Juan’s a really good person. He’s humble. We’re both arrogant, you have to be a little bit arrogant to manage, but he’s humble. We just want to get better and better. We share ideas. He’s a really class act and a good person, and that just kind of makes you draw near to people like that.”
Their paths had crossed several times before, with both based in the Eastern Conference before.
“It’s a similar journey that we’ve had, because he was the assistant coach in Memphis, and I started being the assistant coach at Indy Eleven,” Guerra said. “We had to face each other quite a lot when I was on the other side, conference. We kept a good relationship, and we became head coaches pretty close in time.”
At its heart, though, it means that there’s no room for secrets between these coaches. Both know each other’s tactics. Both know each other’s thinking processes.
“We know each other very well, on and off the field,” Guerra said. “We’ve shared a lot of tactical talks over dinner, lunch. We’ve discussed in the classroom tactical things, planning. We know each other very well, but also, we understand that we also both were different. He has his strengths, and I have mine. It’s going to be a very interesting game in which it’s not going to have any secrets.”
There’s no hiding the admiration between the two, with Guerra describing Pirmann as “the best coach in this league.” But as kick-off comes, that closeness just serves as added motivation.
“You want to win so badly playing against a good buddy,” Pirmann said. “I want to win even more. But, at this point, if anybody’s unmotivated or needs anything else to be driven, they’re a bit crazy so it’ll be fun. It’ll be nervous. It’ll be exciting. You just want to curtail those emotions and fuel that into having a good, clear mind. A good, cognizant ability to make sure that we can be prepared and go for it.”
A phoenix rising back up, or a battery recharged
“I have an Apple watch and it tells I’m gonna die,” Guerra said. “In the 80th minute, and probably five times per game. It starts going crazy. It says breathe! Breathe!”
2023 has not been an easy season to navigate for Phoenix Rising, nor for Charleston Battery. Both sides have seen off adversity, be it in the playoffs or the regular season.
“When things go bad, people tend to cower,” Pirmann said. “This group has just picked themselves up. We lost a game 7-0, and then we had to pick ourselves up and go again. We’ve gone down way too many times. We’ve scored a lot of early goals, and so football’s a very fickle sport. It’s madness all the time.
“That character of these players, they’re selfless. I think when you put the club first, when you put this community first, more importantly in the locker room, in this room we’re currently in, when you put the individuals first, each other first, there’s just so much we can accomplish.”
For both Guerra and Pirmann, they inherited teams that either missed the playoffs in 2023, or were about to miss the playoffs in 2023 when they took over.
“I think more than the league, it speaks high volumes of both organizations,” Guerra said. “Organizations that were brave enough to make difficult decisions. Brave enough to take a step forward and understand that we live in a society that doesn’t believe in processes any more, that everything needs to come fast and quick. It needs to happen in an instant, and that’s not real life. We understood that, and we took that step forward and it’s paid off.”
They are just the 3rd and 4th teams in USL Championship history to miss the playoffs one year, then make it to the title match the next.
“The reality is that this doesn’t happen all the time,” Guerra said. “Both of these organizations are outside of the norm. It’s a good moment also to acknowledge that, yes, we reached the final and we made a lot of changes. But we also need to understand that if we wouldn’t have been in the final, we should trust the process as well, because processes done properly take you to where you want to go.”
While it may not have been an easy process, both sides can now celebrate just how far they’ve managed to come.
“When you reflect on it, it’s big picture to kind of be, coming into the season, I think we were the 24th team out of 24, with the MLS clubs going out. So the turnaround’s been great,” Pirmann said.
Facing old faces
“Juan helped me a lot when I was there since the first year,” Charleston Battery midfielder Arturo Rodriguez said. “I think he knows me pretty well, and I know Juan a little bit. But this is just business.”
For Arturo Rodriguez, the playoff final pits his current team against his former team. Phoenix Rising was where Rodriguez played his football between 2021 and 2022, earning his spot in the Championship after previously picking up the MVP award in League One.
He isn’t alone, though. A.J. Cochran, who’s served as a backup center-back for Charleston Battery this season, was part of the 2020 Phoenix Rising team that made it to the unplayed final.
“I’m happy it’s Phoenix,” Cochran said. “The game of soccer has brought us back together, playing against the old club and I think Darnell [King] is the only guy from my time there that’s still on the team.
“It’s going to be great to see some of the Phoenix fans here. Some of them have already reached out, which is great. I have nothing but good things to say about my two years there. I loved the players I played with, the coaching staff. The owners were always great to me, and the fans are some of the best in the USL.”
Even coming up against former teams, that doesn’t mean that there’s any specific animosity to their former employer.
“I don’t see it in that way,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t leave Phoenix in that way. I see Phoenix as a big club, with a lot of respect. For me, I’m going to be only focusing on Charleston.”
On the field, the matchup will be a war. But that doesn’t mean that off it, there won’t be some degree of sentiment.
“The fans deserve it,” Cochran said. “The fans deserve to be here and travel and get to see their team compete for a trophy.”
“I think this club deserves one, more or less,” Rising goalkeeper coach Cory Robertson said. “It’s done a good job. It’s regrown again this year. It’s grown better and stronger. I think it’s time that it kind of matures into that, putting a star on.”
Cory Robertson has been with Phoenix Rising since the Arizona United days, way back in the beginning. This is now his tenth season with the club, and he’s still waiting on his USL Championship winners medal.
“I’m not saying it’s owed one, but I think if stars align, it’s a good time to bring one home for us,” Robertson said.
Meanwhile, one of Rising’s newest additions is also itching to get his hands on the trophy.
“When I first came to the U.S., I didn’t know what to expect,” Rising midfielder Panos Armenakas said. “I started with a different team and had a bit of success individually but the team wasn’t doing too well. Now, coming here, from the first moment I stepped off the plane in June, I knew what it kind of meant and what was expected of the club itself.”
Armenakas was highly touted as a child, featuring in the Sydney Morning Herald at the age of seven and being named to the Guardian Next Generation 50 in 2015. He’s never really settled, though, nor lived up to his full potential.
“I have to thank the staff and Juan especially that’s given me the opportunity to help the team to get where we are right now,” Armenakas said. “It’s amazing. It’s a fight for… it’ll be my first professional trophy. I know Phoenix is still waiting to win the USL Championship, so hopefully they can combine both on Saturday.”
In many ways, Phoenix Rising is back where it belongs. For both Robertson — a man synonymous with the club — and Armenakas, this is a chance to see their hard work finally pay off.
“Out of all the years, I couldn’t have predicted this one at all, but knowing that it’s only one away, I think it makes it a lot more realistic for us to do that,” Robertson said.
The final push
“It’s definitely a motivator,” A.J. Cochran said. “It’s almost like the game of soccer rewarding, putting that effort in and getting another shot at it.”
In the shadow of 2020, Phoenix Rising will take the field for the final once more.
“I know Phoenix is obviously extremely, extremely excited and pumped to be back in the final, and it’s almost redemption for the club as well. I guarantee that a lot of them feel the same way that I did, that it was almost… not taken from us, because it would have been a hell of a game against Tampa, but we never got to play the game.”
That doesn’t mean that this will be an easy game, but in South Carolina on a Sunday night, the U.S.’ second division will put on a spectacle for the country.
“I don’t want it to feel like it’s just any other game, because it’s not,” Guerra said. “That’s the reality. I can’t give them that quote or that line that I actually don’t believe in. It’s not another game. It’s the final. We’re playing for something that this organization has never achieved before, and we want it. We want it very badly. We can’t approach this game the same way.”
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