PHOENIX – In the world of professional sports where the allure of fame, expectations and fortune can lead many astray, Phoenix Rising FC players and coaches believe the cultural traditions behind soccer keep them grounded.
Playing in the USL Championship, the largest Division II professional soccer league in the world, Phoenix Rising FC captured Western Conference titles in 2018 and 2020 and won the regular-season title in 2019. The franchise set an American professional soccer record during that 2019 season with a remarkable 20-match winning streak that captured the imagination of Valley sports fans – even many who had only a casual interest in soccer.
Yet, despite the club’s list of accomplishments, the Rising are motivated to attain even greater heights.
Across the globe, where more than 130,000 individuals play pro soccer, the pressures of staying driven, ensuring family support, managing homesickness and achieving childhood dreams can often disconnect athletes from reality or push them into complacency.
In this pro-sports landscape where countless athletes aim for the pinnacle of their sport but often fall short, Phoenix Rising FC’s players and coaches point to the cultural tapestry of the sport that has surrounded them from an early age to explain how they remain motivated.
Cultural traditions and the soccer dream
“I’m Mexican, it’s just in my blood,” said Rising midfielder Jose Hernandez. “My dad didn’t really play at a competitive level, but he played on Sundays for fun. So, I kind of got that passion from him. I grew up watching soccer. I grew up supporting my national team, supporting Toluca. So it’s just kind of something that I grew into and loved since the first day.”
The influence of one’s country and the values instilled by parents and mentors drive the Rising to pursue soccer dreams with steadfast determination.
Phoenix Rising FC solidified a playoff berth following a victory against Orange County SC last Saturday and reside in the fourth position in the Western Conference standings, with only two games remaining before the playoffs. The Rising host New Mexico United Saturday on Fan Appreciation Night, before closing out the regular season Oct. 14 at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
Although the desire to win a USL Championship is on top of the bucket list for both players and coaches, their motivation isn’t solely tethered to the squad’s success.
Midfielder Gabriel Torres echoed Hernandez when he considered his upbringing. He agreed that love for the sport is profoundly influenced by cultural heritage.
“I come from Brazil and our culture is very soccer involved,” Torres said. “I just remember myself growing up with a ball at my feet, and that’s been my dream ever since.”
As a player, Rising coach Juan Guerra’s devotion to the sport was cultivated through his Italian lineage and his relationship with his father, which included weekends watching soccer on television together, especially Serie A matches.
Then during his stint as a player alongside soccer icon Gio Savarese while with the New York Cosmos, Guerra came to the realization that his future in soccer could go beyond his time as a player.
“It was just the way that he was able to influence players, not just on the professional side, but also on the personal side,” Guerra said of Savarese. “This is someone that pushes you and challenges you, but also is someone that supports you.
“He taught me the thin balance between obedience and belief. You’re not doing it because you’re just going to obey what he says, you do it because you believe in what he’s saying.”
To maintain motivation and belief at the professional level, the Rising continuously embrace the idea that they aren’t done living out that childhood dream.
“I like to say I’m living the dream, but I’m still dreaming,” Torres said. “I’m very thankful for everything that has happened to me since I moved to the United States. I was able to become a professional soccer player, something that I’ve been working on since I was like 12 years old. But I keep humble and keep working hard because I want to reach higher levels.”
For the Rising, complacency isn’t an option.
“I’m very ambitious, just like this organization is,” Guerra said. “As an organization, we don’t believe we have reached our highest level either, and hopefully myself, the staff and everyone involved with the organization can keep growing so we can achieve that highest level.
“I try to stay ambitious. I try to stay humble. I try to keep learning. There’s a lot more to learn and I have to keep learning, especially with how fast this game is changing and transforming. Just like society, if you stop learning for a few months, you find that you’re behind.”
It’s a privilege to live the professional dream, and it can double as a potent motivator.
“Not everybody gets the privilege, the motivation to get into that pro environment,” Hernandez said. “Being here, I know I’m privileged, I know it’s something that not everybody gets to experience, so I kind of just enjoy it and that’s my motivation.”
Responsibility and legacy
Despite the importance of leaving a lasting impression on the game, Phoenix Rising FC’s greatest motivators are being influential and inspirational.
Hernandez also finds internal motivation through his Phoenix roots.
He was originally born in Ixtapan de la Sal, Mexico, but spent his early years in the west Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale. He enrolled at Maryvale High before ultimately making his way to UCLA, where he was honored as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
Now, he is playing in front of crowds that include young players who might be much like he was as a kid in Maryvale.
“I want to win some titles,” Hernandez said. “I think being home and being at this club, it’s one, an expectation, and two, something I really do want to accomplish.
“Like I said, me being home, it just means that much more to me. And I know the struggles that kids kind of go through growing up in West Side Phoenix. It’s just special for me knowing I can be a little light at the end of the tunnel and some inspiration for them.”
Many players and coaches associate success with on-field accomplishments. Yet, Guerra’s perspective is that the responsibility of inspiring the next generation while providing for family constitutes motivation in itself.
“As professional athletes and coaches, it’s easy to receive,” Guerra said. “For me, it’s important that wherever I am, I have the ability to give back as much as I’m receiving. Here in Phoenix, I have received so much, so I have a lot to give back.
“And then obviously it’s my family. I have a lot of people that are depending on me and I have to make sure that I’m at my best to reach the highest potential and also to be able to provide for all of them.”
While success on the pitch remains a top motivator, the Rising players and coaches know that they have a platform to leave a legacy that goes beyond the game. That might be the biggest motivation of all.
“If I can leave a legacy, I would like to be remembered not as a soccer player, but as a guy that was respectful and a good human being,” Torres said.