PHOENIX – This season marks a new beginning for Phoenix Rising FC with a new stadium, a revamped roster and a coach in his first full season on the job.
Coach Juan Guerra’s reconstructed roster made its debut in the new stadium Saturday, and Rising fans showed that, wherever the team plays, they will show up. The game, a 2-2 draw with San Diego Loyal, brought in a franchise-record crowd of more than 10,400 fans.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said after the game. “There’s not a better atmosphere in the USL championship than the one that we have, and I say this very respectfully to all the other clubs in the league.
“And I can guarantee you players, coaches and ownership groups – they know that playing in Phoenix is special. Playing in Phoenix is different, and now we have to keep working hard to make sure that the performances start leading to wins, to results, because tonight we have almost 11,000 people here cheering for us and we really wanted to send them home with a win.”
While Rising’s attendance fell last season, the club has resided near the top of the USL Championship in attendance since its inception.
Rising welcomes fans back to the new stadium Wednesday when the club kicks off its U.S. Open Cup campaign against Greenville Triumph SC. The Open Cup is a knockout tournament featuring 100 teams across multiple divisions of U.S. soccer and is the oldest running soccer competition in the country.
Rising enters the tournament in its second round and like most USL Championship sides, plays a lower-division team. Greenville plays in USL League One, a tier below Rising. Given the disparity in quality on paper between the two sides, Guerra plans to rotate the squad against Greenville as he continues to decipher his best starting 11.
The stadium is Rising’s third home since the franchise was established in 2016, but it is their first home in the city whose name the team represents – Phoenix.
The team originally played in south Scottsdale in a stadium just north of the Salt River bed and Tempe Marketplace. Then Rising built a facility at Wild Horse Pass on Gila River Indian Community property less than two years ago.
When the Gila River Indian Community decided it had other plans for that area along Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, Rising was on the move again.
That opened the door to talks with the City of Phoenix, which ultimately ended with the team agreeing to a five-year lease on the land at 38th Street and Washington, located just minutes from Phoenix-Sky Harbor International Airport.
It is the former site of Phoenix Greyhound Park, a dog-racing venue that closed in 2009, located directly north of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The Phoenix Aviation Department owns and manages the 10-acre site.
Rising owes the city just over $300,000 in the first year and $1.5 million over the life of the lease, according to city documents. Rising reserve the ability to stay at the location for up to 10 years.
The new location is the most centrally located of Rising’s previous homes in the Valley and for the first time fans can use public transportation to get to the games. There is a Valley Metro Light Rail station across from the new stadium’s entrance.
“It’s the central nature of it, you have the accessibility,” Rising President Bobby Dulle told Cronkite News. “For the most part (it’s) a 30-minute drive for everyone to get here. And then you look at the light rail access, having public transportation is fantastic.
“So, you could be in downtown Phoenix, you could be in Tempe, you could be out in Mesa, and you could get to the game riding the light rail and that light rail is a complimentary ride with your ticket to the match.”
Rising Governor Bill Kraus asked fans ahead of Saturday’s game to pardon the team’s dust as they continue to finish construction at the new location. Once finished, the facility will include improved food and beverage options as well as a full-training pitch, just steps from the stadium.
Rising started the season with back-to-back away games as the new stadium was being completed. The structure is the exact same as the one used at Wild Horse Pass with the same capacity of just more than 10,000 fans. Its modular structure allows the stadium to essentially be picked up and moved.
Fortunately for Rising fans, that isn’t likely to be necessary anytime in the near future.
And the stadium isn’t all that has been reconstructed for this season.
The squad that Rising followers will see on the pitch has been completely rebuilt by Guerra as he enters his first full season as Rising head coach. Only five players return from last season, when Rising struggled. The club ultimately fired longtime coach Rick Schantz midway through the season.
Among the returners is captain Darnell King, who along with other returning veterans like Kevon Lambert, has been a leader in the squad through the transition.
“I have to create a culture with the amount of guys we brought back this year,” King said. “We have to show them what we have been over the years, and what we want to continue to be and that’s a winning team.
“Obviously, last year was tough, but we want to get back to our ways. You’ve seen it over the years what this team has been. We want to get back to that and follow in those footsteps. So that’s what my captain role is and just to make sure all the guys are ready to play on Saturdays and Wednesdays and Sundays.”
The personnel changes led to tactical changes on the pitch, but despite adapting a different style, Rising’s expectations remain the same.
“Our expectations are to win the trophy at the end of the season, something we haven’t done yet,” Dulle said. “And for us … the style of play is a bit different than we’ve seen over the past couple of years, but the quality of the person hasn’t changed.
“That’s one of the first things we look at in our players is the type of person. And then, of course, there’s a tremendous amount of technical ability and skill and talent. We have got players from all over the world on this roster. So I think you’ll see a little bit less transition moments, more possession moments, but still having the ability to transition when we need to.”
Given the massive turnaround in the squad, results have been slow to come at the start of the season. Rising started with a battle on the East Coast against Charleston Battery, which ended in a 1-1 draw. The team then made its way to San Diego two weeks ago and fell, 3-0.
That led to the home opener, Rising’s second straight game against San Diego although with an additional week’s rest, which gave Guerra time to solidify his squad.
Rising started Saturday’s game strong, landing the first big blow and getting out to a 1-0 lead 10 minutes before the half. The goal came from an inch-perfect long ball out wide to Henry Uzochokwu, who found space on the right wing and whipped in a cross. It found the boot of Manuel Arteaga, who had a tap-in in front of goal.
Halfway through the second half, Rising doubled its lead.
Another long ball to the right flank eventually found Emil Cuello in space and he dribbled along the edge of the box before ripping a shot at Loyal keeper Koke Vegas, who saved the chance. However, he deflected the ball right to the feet of Arteaga, who finished the chance to bag his brace.
At that point, it seemed likely the record crowd would witness Rising’s first victory of the season. But after the second goal, Phoenix let off the gas and San Diego upped the pressure. In the 72nd minute, Loyal halved Rising’s advantage after a nice build-up play down the left flank opened the space for them to square the ball to an open Nick Moon in the box. He tucked the chance away and cut the Rising lead to a goal.
Things went from bad to worse less than 10 minutes later. Loyal again attacked down the left flank where Ronaldo Damus found space and ripped a shot at Rising keeper Rocco Rios Novo.
Rios Novo saved the shot, but the ball bounced to another Loyal player who fired on goal. Rios Novo made the save again, but the ball deflected back into the box a third time and Damus got his foot to the ball again.
This time, he struck with just enough power to roll it past the keeper and over the line, tying the score.
The game would finish 2-2, a marked improvement from the previous game against San Diego but still disappointing for Guerra and his squad after Rising led the majority of the game.
“At the end of the day, I’m very bothered,” Guerra said. “I’m not worried. I saw a lot of good things again today from the group. I think we are on a clear ascending curve and, listen, we have to keep building.
“We utilized the loss the other week in order to grow. We made sure that we were fixing some scenarios that we wanted to fix and today we look very good for moments. I still think those are moments that have to become longer spells when we’re playing, and I know we’re going to be able to get there.
“We need more time, we need more games, but … it’s going to be a quick turnaround because we have a game on Wednesday and then we have to go battle to the east.”
In last year’s U.S. Open Cup, Rising was knocked out in the round of 32, but the tournament this year will give Guerra an opportunity to go deep into his 26-man roster and better evaluate players who normally might not see the pitch on game day.
“Thankfully we didn’t play last week, so we have a group that is rested,” Guerra said. ”We have a group that is very eager and motivated … And then we also have the depth, and we recovered a lot of players that were under injury.
“We can rotate the squad, and it gives myself, it gives (the media), it gives the supporters and the players an opportunity to see everybody on the field. So at the end of the day, that’s the hardest thing for me as a coach is trying to give back to my players when they’re giving you 100 percent. This week allows me the opportunity to give playing time to a lot of them.”