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IRVINE, Calif. — To the side of the section previously packed by a large traveling support, Phoenix Rising coach Juan Guerra stood, remarking how the sweat from the players he’d embraced was now covering him.
The hugs were justified. For the first time since 2020, Phoenix Rising had made it past two opponents in the playoffs, leaving them potentially 90 minutes away from a conference title.
“We’re getting there, little by little,” Guerra said. “It’s a process, and processes take time. Thankfully, the hard work of this year, it’s taken us this far now.”
In some ways, it’s vindication for Guerra’s drastic rebuild of the squad. Taking over from Rick Schantz — a coach who had led the team to two championship games in five seasons — he inherited a broken locker room in the summer of last year that lingered adrift of postseason contention.
Despite Guerra’s efforts, the change came too late. Rising would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2016, when the team played at Peoria Sports Complex under the name Arizona United.
The result was a turbulent offseason, with a squad barely recognizable to that which had taken the field previously. Gone were fan favorites. Gone, too, was the style of play implemented by his predecessor, replaced with a more methodical, more possession-based brand of football.
The season hasn’t come without its bumps.
“The Juan Guerra experiment has failed,” one Facebook commenter said as results went against the team in midseason. He wasn’t alone on social media.
Yet despite the odds, especially after a 6th place finish in the West standings, Rising’s run to the final four in USL Championship raises a question: is this team back where it belongs? And more importantly, what got them there?
Trejo up top
Phoenix Rising, in its success, has always had star power in its attack.
In 2023, step up Danny Trejo.
Since the start of the year, including playoffs, Trejo has netted 19 goals. He’s also bagged 7 assists.
That places him second all-time in terms of combined goals and assists in a single Rising season, behind Solomon Asante’s impressive haul of 39 in 2019.
In that year, Asante failed to find the net across two playoff matches. Trejo has scored in both playoff matches so far, stepping up after a late season slump.
“For me, I know all the hard work that I put in,” Trejo said of his improved form in the postseason.
“Any time that I get to prove it in these games, I’m going to be ready. These are games that I’ve been getting ready [for] since I started the season.”
Impressive too is Trejo’s outperformance of his Expected Goals (xG) over the course of the season, backing up his credentials as one of the league’s elite finishers.
Across all USL Championship games in 2023, Trejo has outperformed his xG by 6.67.
Only Chris Cortez (2018), Didier Drogba (2017) and Santi Moar (2021) have performed better for Phoenix Rising in a single year since the rebrand. Just Cal Jennings of Tampa Bay Rowdies, another former Las Vegas player, outperformed him across the league on that metric this season.
Trejo’s future with the club is, as with all elite talents at USL Championship level, uncertain. The striker made no secret of the fact prior to the season that he wanted to prove his credentials as a player capable of playing in the top flight.
It’s entirely possible that he follows the lead of Adam Jahn in 2019, capping off an impressive season for Rising with a return to Major League Soccer.
Still, as long as he’s wearing the red and black of Phoenix Rising, the team is significantly boosted by his attacking prowess.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes
2023 hasn’t been easy for Phoenix Rising.
As the regular season drew towards its conclusion, Rising had a chance of finding itself in the top four, securing a home match for the first round of the playoffs.
Instead, the team rounded out with five winless games. Expectations for the playoffs, knowing the side would almost certainly be on the road throughout, were low.
Facing San Diego, Rising trailed twice. The team responded each time. They blew a lead deep into second half stoppage team. They got back up, held off their opponents in the first half of extra time and drove the nail into Loyal’s coffin as the second came towards its conclusion.
In Orange County, Rising had taken an early lead. But, much as they had in San Diego, the team sat back after gaining the advantage and ultimately paid for it.
“You get an early goal, you’re playing at an away field, stadium gets on top of the local team and they get that energy and they want to come forward,” Guerra said. “We’ve made some adjustments that then allow us to be able to press a little bit higher up the field.
“I told you last week in San Diego, I don’t feel comfortable because I don’t like it. It’s not part of our identity to defend deep for long periods of time. There’s moments, circumstances, situations that you’re going to have to do it, but it was too early in the game for that.”
Thomas Amang’s equalizer on Saturday could have changed things, especially on the road. Instead, a resilient Phoenix Rising team kept battling, refused to allow Orange County to capitalize on their momentum further and turned the game around.
They wouldn’t suffer a spell of pressure quite like that again on the night. Instead, Rising would take the lead in extra time thanks to contributions from a pair of subs.
“Anybody that comes in the field is able to help us out,” Trejo said. “That’s what’s very good about this team. We’ve shown it since the beginning, that everybody contributes. Everybody. That’s the good thing about this team.”
Faced with adversity at every step, Phoenix Rising moved on. In doing so, they become the first team since 2017 to reach a Conference Final on the back of two road games, and just the fourth overall since USL adopted conferences in 2015.
“I’m just the guy standing on the sideline,” Guerra said. “This is all the players, man. It’s their heart. It’s how much they believe, and they keep pushing forward. This team doesn’t back down. This team doesn’t quit.”
Clutch Calistri? Clutch Cuello!
For years, Joey Calistri was the man Phoenix Rising fans looked to when they expected someone to come up clutch late in a match.
This was particularly prevalent against New Mexico. Across five league meetings with Rising’s rivals to the east, Calistri scored four goals.
Calistri left Rising at the end of the 2022 season, along with a long list of his teammates. His spot as the clutch player against hated opponents has been taken over, though, by Emil Cuello.
Cuello came up big in Rising’s last regular season meeting with Orange County, scoring a phenomenal effort from distance to rescue a home point for Phoenix.
He’d go one better against them in the postseason, smashing home a winner in extra time.
Cuello’s match winner last weekend had an xG of 0.075. His equalizer in September had an even lower xG, at 0.021.
Between two critical, match-changing goals, Emil Cuello’s xG didn’t even add up to 0.1.
For much of the year, Phoenix Rising missed Emil Cuello due to injury. Now, getting his minutes off the bench, he’s out to prove what he can do.
Fans backing the boys
2022 was a year of division within the Phoenix Rising fanbase.
Struggles on the field led to discontent among parts of the stands. The question of Rick Schantz’s future, and Juan Guerra’s subsequent appointment, dominated discourse among supporters. Many did not see eye to eye.
Through changes in stadium and more this season, things sometimes felt a little different on matchdays. That wasn’t the case at Championship Soccer Stadium in Orange County, as Rising did battle in front of a faithful away contingent.
Rising sold its allocation for the playoff match with time to spare. Additional overflow seating in the adjacent section was made available.
Estimates from before the game put the number of away tickets sold at around 200. They chanted for the full 120 minutes. While they didn’t get quite as carried away as they did in 2018, when Rising’s fans stormed OC’s field to mark a conference title, they did celebrate with the players well after the closing whistle.
According to Rising’s coach, that connection with the supporters has been critical.
“When I came out for the warmup and I saw them right away, I said: ‘Wow. We’re not alone,'” Guerra explained. “I always tell my players, it’s that sense of belonging that is difficult to develop or create when you have 21 new players, especially in year one. It’s difficult to create sense of belonging after a few months only.
“But look at our players. These guys, they bleed these colors. They truly believe in what we’re building, and they truly understand that they have the opportunity to give back. Look how much we received tonight, but also how much that the players gave back to them. That’s what it is. It’s a full circle.”
Onwards to Sacramento
Two road wins have helped ensure that Rising’s season will end on a higher note than expected, but that doesn’t mean the job is done yet.
Next up is Sacramento Republic, with a trophy on the line.
“I’m feeling amazing,” Trejo said. “I think the team is catching a good rhythm.”
The last time Rising traveled to Heart Health Park, they collapsed to a dismal 4-0 loss in late July. That result was enough for Jeff Wendt, who previously covered the club for the Arizona Republic and others, to ask for anyone to “explain how Juan Guerra keeps his job after this performance?“
Just a few months later, nobody is asking that question. Regardless of Saturday’s result, no sane Rising fan would repeat it.
“I was nervous before the game,” Guerra said after the team’s first playoff match, a 4-3 extra time win over San Diego. “Not because of what was going to happen on the field, but because a result probably was going to put everything that we’ve done for ten months in doubt. It was going to jeopardize everything we had done.”
These two playoff matches haven’t done that. If anything, they’ve done the exact opposite.
While the job isn’t done yet, one thing has been made abundantly clear on the field.
The darks clouds don’t stay forever. The sun is back out once again. The battle for trophies is on.
Phoenix Rising is back where it belongs.
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