PHOENIX – For a team as successful as Phoenix Rising FC, the 2022 season was an unmitigated disaster. They failed to make the USL Championship playoffs for the first time in six seasons after finishing as the No. 1 seed the year prior.
Rick Schantz, the team’s longtime manager, was relieved of his duties halfway through the season amid protests from fans, and replaced by Juan Guerra, a former Rising assistant coach who had been a head coach with Oakland Roots for less than a year.
The goals had dried up for the once-explosive Rising. A team featuring stars such as Soloman Asante, who led the league in scoring in the 2019 season with 22 goals, and Adam Jahn, who scored 17 goals in the same season, didn’t have a single player finish with more than nine goals.
Guerra’s squad was in serious need of an overhaul during the 2022 offseason and required an infusion of attacking talent.
Fortunately for Rising, their reputation still preceded them.
“You look at Phoenix Rising and this is a team that has a lot of goals,” Rising forward Danny Trejo said. “They want to always be at the top of the table. They always want to be in the playoffs. It’s mandatory for them to win. So, for me as a player, that’s where you want to be.”
Trejo was one of the 15 new faces Rising added ahead of the 2023 season, joining the side from MLS club LAFC, who declined to extend his contract at the end of the 2022 season.
Joining him was forward Manuel Arteaga, who featured for fellow USL Championship team Indy Eleven last season after playing for a variety of clubs in Europe and his native Venezuela.
Trejo, who spent most of last year on loan at USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights, and Arteaga have performed well at this level before but have surpassed all expectations this season.
As Rising return to the playoffs and face San Diego Loyal SC Sunday in the Western Conference quarterfinals, Trejo leads the league in goal contributions with 24 (17 goals and seven assists), while Arteaga is fifth with 21 (15 goals and six assists).
Trejo and Arteaga’s combined 32 goals account for 59% of Rising’s USL Championship goals this season and is tied for fourth for most goals by a duo in USL Championship history. They’re only the second pair of teammates to have at least 14 goals each in a season, after Asante and Jahn set the record in 2019.
In recognition of their form, both players won the USL Championship Player of the Month award, Arteaga in June and Trejo in August. Only seven players win the award during the season.
Neither player has achieved such individual success before. This is the most goals either have scored in a season, something that Guerra credits to the atmosphere in the squad.
“It’s very rare to have a player with that number of goals and we just don’t have one,” Guerra said. “We have two. So that speaks volumes individually and how much they work to be able to achieve what they have achieved so far, but also speaks high volumes of the collective and the teammates that they have around them.”
Hard work and communication with their teammates has been a vital factor in enabling both to achieve success this season.
Importantly, the two are constantly talking about how to get the best out of each other.
“Manu is a player that combines well and is able to adjust to players,” Trejo said. “We talk a lot and try to understand each other. I think that’s what’s important with these games coming up, we talked a lot because him being a big piece with myself also being a big piece we want to make sure that we’re able to give the team the best of ourselves.”
Other than both having the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, they are resilient in the face of adversity and share a relentless work ethic.
Despite coming from different backgrounds, they’ve both endured obstacles on the path to Rising.
Trejo was a high school standout and set the record for goals scored in a season (65) at Mendota High School near Fresno, California. He got injured early in the state championship game but insisted on staying in the game despite being in evident pain.
Arteaga moved to Europe at an early age and bounced around different leagues until settling on Venezuela before coming to America. He only got a consistent run of games after he joined Indy Eleven in 2021.
Both of their desires to improve individually and win made an immediate impression on Guerra.
“Since day one, their character has been spotless and the hunger that they had when they came in they’ve maintained,” Guerra said. “Then obviously when you connect the tactical piece and then the technical ability that they have, they tick all the boxes. So, since day one, they’ve been important. But we’re not done, and they’re not done yet and they’re not satisfied, which is the most important.”
Put in a position to succeed by a team that supports their individual efforts and buoyed by their efforts off the field, both forwards have been able to excel this season and have revitalized a Rising team that was heading in the wrong direction a year ago.
Without success in the playoffs, individual success is immaterial to Arteaga.
“In the end, our work as a team is what takes you to victory and it’s what will take you to the playoffs,” Arteaga said. “At the same time we can go and things can go wrong but if we don’t achieve something nobody will remember us.”