IRVINE, Calif. – Phoenix Rising like to leave it late.
A week after Dariusz Formella scored the winner in the 119th minute against San Diego Loyal SC, Emil Cuello scored in the 116th minute Sunday against Orange County SC to lift Phoenix Rising to a 2-1 victory and send the club to the Western Conference Final for the first time in three years.
In both games, Rising were the better side in extra time, something coach Juan Guerra attributes to their mentality and resilience.
“They don’t stop,” Guerra said. “They don’t quit. They push forward, they stay focused and engaged, and they’re believing. They’re believing in the work that we’re doing and in the work that they’re putting in. I am so happy and grateful that it’s paying off because sometimes you could do all the work you could believe could push forward, and then things don’t go your way.
“Thankfully these last two games, things have gone our way. But also because we have looked for them. It hasn’t been a coincidence. We put the names on the field to go after games, especially in extra time, and it’s paid off.”
Guerra has built a squad which runs deep and on which players know their roles. In playoff games, especially ones that go the full 120 minutes, being able to bring impact players off the bench who can maintain the performance level of the starting 11 is vital.
After 90 minutes of grueling soccer, with the score still tied 1-1, Guerra sent on fresh attacking legs in the hope to tip the balance and win the game before penalties.
And it worked.
The winning goal against Orange County was created and finished by two players who were substituted on for extra time, Cuello and Erickson Gallardo.
Rising’s leading goalscorer, Danny Trejo, partially attributes the team’s success to depth.
“Anybody that comes onto the field is able to help us out,” Trejo said. “That’s what’s very good about this team, and we’ve shown it from the beginning. Everybody contributes.”
Rising’s playoff success is the continuation of a process Guerra has been attempting to implement since he was hired in August of 2022.
Rising have now made the first Western Conference Final for the first time since 2020, when they advanced to the USL Championship Final against Tampa Bay, only to have it canceled due to the global pandemic.
Rising made it to the conference final this time in what has become typical fashion for Phoenix. Rising has not won a playoff game in regulation since Nov 3, 2018, against Orange County.
Meanwhile, Guerra is finally stamping his style on the team.
“We’re getting there,” Guerra said. “We’re getting there little by little. It’s a process which takes time, and thankfully the work this year has taken us this far. Now, we cannot forget everything we’ve done in order to get here. We’re going to enjoy (Sunday’s victory) and then we switch on again and make sure that we’re ready to go next week. Because I promise you, it’s going to be another battle.”
Winning in the final minutes of extra time on the road makes for emotionally satisfying endings, especially in a high-intensity playoff game. However, there are downsides.
Next week, Rising travel to Sacramento Republic FC, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, with 240 minutes of soccer in their legs.
In contrast, Sacramento comfortably won both of its playoff games in 90 minutes on its home pitch at Heart Health Park. They’ve played an hour less of soccer, all at home, and have not contended with the emotional rollercoaster of a nail-biting finish to a playoff game.
Guerra has a real challenge ensuring his players are not mentally and physically drained ahead of the game next week.
“We have a lot of momentum, but also a lot of miles on the player’s legs,” Guerra said. “So mentally and physically we’re going to have to recover the players. Right away the first thing (the players) said to me was ‘We’re not done. We’ve got another one to go’. That just speaks high volumes of their mentality and of how focused we are on the objective.”
Regardless of the result next week, Rising reaching the conference final as a No. 6 seed is an impressive achievement in itself, and one step on the road to Rising restoring its past glories.
It’s the kind of moment that Guerra imagined when Rising general manager Bobby Dulle tapped him as coach more than a year ago.
“When Bobby called me, and he told me about the possibility of coming back to Phoenix Rising, nights like this were the first ones that came to my mind,” Guerra said. “I’ve been visualizing this since that phone call, and tonight that became a reality.”