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Two years ago, Phoenix Rising last took the field for a USL Championship playoff match.
The club had finished atop the Western Conference, and were looking forward to a long playoff run at their Wild Horse Pass fortress. Yet after just one game, culminating with kicks from 12 yards out, Phoenix was finished.
“It was a nightmare, man,” Juan Guerra said. “It was not good.”
Guerra was an assistant coach at that time under Rick Schantz. That offseason, he would leave to take charge in Oakland, before returning to Phoenix Rising in August 2022.
This year, reaching the postseason marks an inflection point for a Phoenix Rising side that has only missed out on the playoffs once since adopting its current identity. It does so off the back of a much-changed Phoenix side, one modelled by Guerra in his chosen identity.
Club captain Darnell King is one of the few players who was also there on the Rising side on that night in November 2021.
“Everybody’s ready, hyped,” King said. “We obviously have to keep emotions to a certain point, but we know what this means to this club. We know what this means to us. It’s been a long season, so it’s important that we go into this game with a strong mentality, ready to go and focused.”
Despite the progress made by the team, Rising has struggled in recent weeks as they battled, ultimately unsuccessfully, to host a first round match. The team hasn’t won since mid-September, and fell to a loss in its last two matches.
“[This is] a group that understands that the last two weeks, we haven’t been the team that we wanted to be,” Guerra said. “That creates a good sense of […] concentration. You see more focus.
“To be honest, I like it. I like it. I see that the guys are ready. I see that the guys are absorbing information. They’re asking for information which, that’s always good.”
Now, it’s time to step up. Rising will travel to San Diego, one of the club’s bigger rivals.
“If you asked me to pick someone from the whole list of the West to play, I would have picked San Diego,” Guerra said. “This is a soccer game that we want. This is going to be a proper soccer game. This is a game that we want, and that I’m sure this is a game that our fanbase and the full stadium that is going to watch will enjoy watching too. This is a good game for the USL.”
“It’s always a competitive game when we go play against them,” King said. “Scoreline says one thing at times, but they know that we always come to fight, and we know that they do as well. It’s always a battle. We know it’s a big rivalry. The atmosphere’s always great here and there when we go play.”
For Jose Andres Hernandez, a Phoenix Rising midfielder that grew up in Maryvale, it means that much more.
“I’m here because I wanted to be part of this,” he said.
This is a position Hernandez has been in, much like his teammate Alejandro Fuenmayor. Last season, with Oakland Roots, both travelled to Torero Stadium to ultimately knock San Diego from the playoffs in the opening round. Hernandez in particular played his part, managing to draw a sufficient reaction from Thomas Amang that the latter saw red as the first of three Loyal players to be dismissed.
This season is different, though. In 2022, Loyal was hosting its first playoff match as they faced Roots. This year, it could be their last, as San Diego Loyal will cease operations after the conclusion of the 2023 season.
“It’s actually kind of sad to see them go, because in my opinion, I think over the last few years since they’ve been in the league, they’ve been very consistent,” Hernandez said. “It’s a little bittersweet, but if it has to be us who has to take them out, then so be it.”
Since the announcement that Loyal would fold, the team has lost just two of its ten matches. Inevitably, San Diego’s players — especially those that have been there since the very beginning — will enter the match with added motivation.
“That’s something that I’m not trying to match, as a coach,” Guerra said. “I’m not going to try to push our players to match those motivation levels, because our players are not living that, and we can’t do that. That would be a mistake.
“We just need to understand that we’re going to go to a place where, at times, especially the first 20 minutes and the last 15, the crowd is going to play a big role for them. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be demanding and challenging for us. When they have the ball, they can create that false sense that they’re hurting you because the stadium is loud, but probably they’re not. We need to be so focused, so concentrated and understand that at times, we’re going to suffer. At times, we’re going to be demanded and we’re going to feel uncomfortable defending, and we need to do those things, and when we have the ball we need to keep it.”
Instead of focusing on its opposition, Rising’s motivation comes from within.
“How do I match up that motivation?” Guerra said. “We have other ways to match up that motivation: who we are, who we represent. Why are we here? Why did our players choose to come to Phoenix Rising? Why did I choose to come back to Phoenix Rising?
“That’s us. That’s an internal motivator, and that’s a lot bigger than any external things that can happen. That’s what I’m going to demand of the players. That’s what the players understand, and the message has been the same message since day one. It hasn’t shifted. This is a week that we want to see all those questions answered, and we want to go over there and make sure that we can make the organization, our fanbase, our supporters, our families and ourselves proud.”
Two years ago, Phoenix Rising was one-and-done in the playoffs. Now, they will look to bury the ghosts of the past two seasons, both ending in premature disappointment.
“We played an unbelievable regular season [in 2021] that put us in the playoffs with five weeks to go, or maybe more,” Guerra said. “But when I look back […] it’s kind of like the other side of the coin. This year, it is true, the last two games we didn’t get the results that we wanted. But now I’ve seen that the group is more focused. The group is very concentrated, they’re focused. They’re not relaxed.
“When that happened versus RGV two years ago, I had a sense that the group was too relaxed. We had too many weeks where we were qualified already. We were winning a lot of games in a row. Obviously, the sweet spot is the middle one, where you’re not too relaxed, but you’re not too tense. If you asked me right now, I’d rather have a group that is focused, that is concentrated and it’s not relaxed. That’s who we are right now. I like it. I like the concentration levels and the atmosphere a lot more this week than two years ago when we had qualified for the playoffs with weeks to go.”
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