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There’s empathy in Phoenix Rising coach Juan Guerra’s voice.
As he says frequently, he was once a player in the locker room. Not in Phoenix, but in New York, Tampa Bay and Caracas among others.
“Since I retired, not many times have I felt the want to lace up and step out there,” Guerra said. “But I’m not going to lie. Every time I come to home games over here and I’m driving and I see the lights in the stadium, I see the players come in and I walk out there and I’m in the tunnel, I get that feeling. I get that feeling again.”
Guerra is coming to the close of his first year as a head coach, and it hasn’t been an easy one for the former Venezuelan international.
“It’s been a huge rollercoaster of emotions,” Guerra said. “A huge rollercoaster of absorbing information, of learning and growing experiences.”
Parts of that rollercoaster are of his own making. Despite being in just his first coaching year, the Guerra has already served at the helm of two teams. After starting the year in Oakland, Guerra jumped ship to return to Rising after Rick Schantz’s departure.
As a result, he has spent much of 2022 working hard to create squads in the image that he seeks. At a team such as Rising -— which has featured almost exclusively in a quick transition 4-3-3 for several years — that can prove to be a challenge to which to adjust.
“It’s important to build and believe in your idea,” Guerra said. “First, you focus on the structure. The structure needs to be solid. Then, after building that structure, your idea, your game model, your style of play, that has to be very clear. Then from that, you build up.
“I had the opportunity to do it twice, because I had to do it in December when I didn’t have a lot of time to rebuild [Oakland]. Then I had to tweak a few things when I came over here with not a lot of time either.”
That lack of time could prove costly. Despite a recent uptick in performance, Rising desperately needed points when Guerra arrived. The team instead lost four of its first five games as it adjusted to its new tactics.
“We live in a society that people get everything quick,” Guerra said. “With the click of a finger, you get food at the door of your house. With the click of a finger, you have a car waiting for you to take you from point A to point B. With the click of a finger, we do absolutely everything. Then, sometimes… society, they forget that processes take time and good things take time. One of my biggest learnings that I’ve gotten is that building takes time.”
There are signs of improvement on the horizon. Despite a rough start, Rising has won two straight for the first time since April. A team that played bereft of confidence now knows that, while a playoff spot might be just a step too far, it can at least force the question through to the final matchday.
“Not all the time as a coach, you get to be on the sideline and you’re enjoying the game,” Guerra said. “Sometimes, you suffer. Sometimes, you struggle because there’s things that you can’t control. You’re depending on other people around you, which is the players, to execute, and then you’re just watching and you kind of influence in a secondary role.
“But these last games, I’ve enjoyed watching the team play. I know that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. I know that we’re still not at our best, and I know we’re going to get there. But when I see things translating from training to the game, and I see them trying to execute, and when I see those things going well, I actually enjoy watching the players play. So as long as I’m enjoying watching them play, I don’t mind being on the sidelines.”