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Inside Heart Health Park as Phoenix Rising claims conference title

Owain Evans Avatar
November 5, 2023
Phoenix Rising's Emil Cuello lifts the Western Conference Trophy.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The rain wouldn’t come until later. Tomorrow, to be precise.

Unless you’re talking about a rain of bottles, coming in from Heart Health Park’s northern end. Unless, too, you were talking about the torrent of fans heading for the exits. And of course, unless you were talking about the reign of Phoenix Rising as Western Conference champions after a 2-1 win at Sacramento on Saturday.

“I can’t [put the feeling into words],” Rising coach Juan Guerra said after the match. “I can’t. I’m so proud of this organization. I’m so proud of our players. At the end of the day, this is because of them. We’re celebrating tonight because of all the effort that they put in.”

Emil Cuello had come up clutch once again, following up a winner in extra time against Orange County with a winner in stoppage time against Sacramento Republic.

It sealed an unlikely win in what has been one of the unlikeliest of seasons. Juan Guerra had gutted Phoenix Rising’s squad since taking over from Rick Schantz in August 2022. 2023 was to be a rebuild year, not a statement year. Just a handful of players with experience of playing in red and black returned to don the jersey once more.

Now, after many arduous months of a national schedule, Rising returns to where it began its season: Charleston Battery. Both Battery and Rising are only the third and fourth teams to make it to the USL Championship Final after missing the postseason the season prior. Rising are the only team in league history to have won three playoff matches on the road.

Even on the night, it seemed unlikely that Rising would prevail. Throughout a cagey first half, Phoenix struggled to produce, creating just two shots, one on target. At the other end, Sacramento found their breakthrough via leading scorer Russell Cicerone.

“It looked like a final, where they didn’t have a lot of shots on target,” Guerra said. “I think they only had that one, and I think we only had one too. We were still controlling the game through possession, as we want to, but they were very dangerous on the break. Building out of the back, we play that ball in a transition moment, it ends in a goal.

“But listen, the resiliency of this group, you can’t measure it. The guys kept pushing forward, kept playing our way with our identity and in the second half, I think we controlled the game how we wanted to.”

Rising eventually found its breakthrough via an own goal from a free kick, just a couple of weeks after Guerra had commented that he wanted to see more from his team when attacking set pieces. The winner fell to Cuello, in the second minute of additional time.

“Everyone that is part of that roster is important,” Guerra said. “Everybody plays a key role in everything we do: the guys that are starting, the guys that are not starting, the guys that are not dressing, the guys that didn’t travel. Everybody plays a key role in what we’re doing, and look what happened today.

“We make subsitutions, and we have the ability to get better again. Not just get better, but we look with more energy, stronger, and the guys that get subbed are clapping and jumping and motivating the guys who go in. We’re a big family. From day one, this is what we wanted to achieve, and I can tell you today that we have achieved that.”

That trend isn’t just something that’s cropped up in the playoffs. Across the season, Phoenix Rising leads the league in goals scored by substitutes (11). Phoenix also leads the league in goals scored in the last 15 minutes of games (19), cementing their legacy as a team that simply refuses to give in late in games.

Going into the match, Rising’s performance in reaching the Western Conference Final was pointed to as a sign that the team was once again back where it belongs. The conference title cemented that status without question.

In the corner of Heart Health Park, a section of Rising fans stood, seperated from the home support by a temporary barrier to their rear. Several of the fans had travelled up from Phoenix. Others were friends and family of Danny Trejo, who grew up in California’s Central Valley.

On the final whistle, they were the focus. Rising’s players made a beeline straight for them, and nothing was going to get in their way. One jump saw them over the advertising boards, with some unfortunately-placed furniture all that stood between the jumping players and their supporters.


There went one table, never to hold drinks again. Later, one Rising player would joke that the table looked to have been disposed of “WWE-style.”

A handful of Republic supporters remained, heckling from the north stand where objects had previously been thrown from. With the aid of a megaphone, they shouted at the Phoenix players to get off of the field.

But nothing could ruin this evening for Phoenix. First with the fans, then with the trophy, and finally with both the trophy and the fans. Players’ national flags brought color to a playing surface that appeared fairly dismal viewing from afar, and that had to be scoured by staff earlier for small plastic shards that covered the field.

Phoenix Rising players celebrate their Western Conference title with the team's traveling fans.

It was the first time since 2018 that Phoenix Rising had won a playoff match without going into extra time.

In the midst of the chaos, Rising coach Juan Guerra stood with his wife and children, drinking in the moment. His two boys wore player’s jerseys, drooping from their small frames and tucked in to avoid tripping them up. Captain Darnell King held his young son, whose birth had kept him from joining the team on their preseason Mexico City trip.

It was a moment few had expected. It was a moment to be savored. It was a moment to be shared.

“We’re celebrating tonight because they’ve been challenged, they’ve been demanded, they’ve been pushed, they’ve been criticized, and they kept pushing forward,” Guerra said. “This is a group of players that truly believed, and believes in what we’re building. Tonight, they deserve it. The players, their families, and our supporters that have been very, very patient. They all deserve it tonight, so I’m very, very happy for all of them.”

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