‘It’s always a battle’: Phoenix Rising’s rivalry with San Diego Loyal culminates in dramatic playoff win

San Diego Loyal’s Tumi Moshobane holds Phoenix Rising’s Mohamed Traore during Sunday’s clash in the 2023 USL Playoffs at Torero Stadium. (Photo courtesy of San Diego Loyal)

PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising fan Tomas Rosales doesn’t have fond memories of Rising playing away games against San Diego Loyal SC.

One recollection he would prefer to forget in particular stands out among the rest. The moment came after Rising relinquished the lead in a tight match there. The opposing fan bases went wild, but for different reasons.

“I remember one time, San Diego had equalized and rather than celebrating with their own fans, their player came over to our side of the stadium and tried to rile us up,” Rosales said. “He was trying to have a go at us rather than celebrating with his fans.”

That was only one chapter of a rivalry that has grown in intensity over the past four years, one that came to a sudden close Sunday in the opening round of the USL Championship playoffs, with a dramatic 4-3 Phoenix Rising win at San Diego.

Dariusz Formella scored in the 119th minute of extra time to send Rising to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2020 – and permanently end San Diego’s tenure as a professional soccer club.

In August the franchise announced it would shut down after the organization failed to find a permanent home. The arrival of a 30th MLS team in San Diego in 2025 undoubtedly affected Loyal’s decision to fold after four seasons, a decision that was not without controversy.

“Animosity aside, San Diego has a great fan base,” Rosales said. “If it wasn’t us up there, I’d say they’re one of the two best fan bases left in the USL. Rivalry aside, hate for them aside, I just hate to see Major League Soccer come into San Diego.

“It’s really disrespectful and underhanded.”

This weekend’s game was the culmination of a feud that saw its first flashpoint in just the second game the two teams ever played.

Rising forward Junior Flemmings used a homophobic slur toward San Diego midfielder Collin Martin during a game. San Diego manager Landon Donovan asked for Flemmings to be removed from the game, a request that was not granted. In response, the San Diego players took a knee when the whistle blew, then walked off the pitch to never return.

Flemmings never played for Rising again, but an edge was added to the rivalry.

“It’s always a competitive game when we play against them,” Rising defender Darnell King said. “They know that we always come to fight and we know that they do as well, so it’s always a battle. It’s a big rivalry. The atmosphere is always great here and there.”

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Traditionally, the teams can hardly be separated. Rising has a 5-5-2 record against San Diego, however, most of their losses have come in the past two years. Prior to Sunday’s game, Rising had not won away at San Diego since July 24, 2021.

Rising’s playoff victory Sunday is even more impressive considering the stakes were even higher for San Diego compared to the Rising.

The thought of being buried by a close rival is a powerful motivator, and one that Rising coach Juan Guerra did not try to replicate to motivate his own players.

“That’s something that I am not trying to match as a coach,” he 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.”

The significance of the occasion was not lost on the fans either. The atmosphere at San Diego’s home, Torero Stadium, was deafening for most of the game until the pin was pulled out by Formella’s late winner.

Rising seemed unfazed by the atmosphere, coming back from a goal down twice in the face of enormous pressure, before scoring the winner with one minute left in the game.

Guerra had spent time preparing for the hostile environment the week prior to the game. He pumped in crowd noise whilst his team practiced penalties, something that paid dividends when Panos Armenakas scored a penalty in the 17th minute.

“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,” Guerra said. “It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be demanding and challenging for us when they have the ball. So we need to be focused, we need to be concentrated and understand that at times we’re going to suffer.”

The rivalry between the fanbases has developed the most in the Torero Stadium. The unique design of the stadium means the away fans sit right beside San Diego supporters’ section, which inevitably leads to verbal altercations.

Years of arguments in the stands and on social media have led to a frosty relationship between the two sets of supporters.

Ahead of the game, Rosales relished the prospect of Rising ending San Diego’s tenure in the USL Championship.

“I hope it’s the same for the players, but for me at least, the stakes are so high,” Rosales said. “This is a really important game for us. The animosity and the words exchanged between fans online and in person, I would hate to have them have the last word.

“Don’t get me wrong. I would love to move on to the next round and win the cup. That’s the main goal here. But if we get to bury a team that we’ve disliked for so long along the way, that’s the cherry on top.”

William Scott(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

William Scott expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Scott has interned as a communications assistant at Phoenix Rising football club.