PHOENIX – Heading into the 2023 season, expectations were low for Phoenix Rising FC. A squad that had finished 10th in the USL Championship last season was completely overhauled over the break, and fans didn’t know what to expect from countless new faces and only three returning players.
The initial results weren’t promising. Rising bounced between the sixth and the eighth seed for the first half of the season, and looked like they may not make the playoffs after a 4-0 trouncing by Sacramento Republic FC with 14 games left in the season.
At midseason, one particularly disgruntled fan took to Facebook to proclaim: ‘The Juan Guerra experiment has failed.’
However, his skepticism would soon be proven wrong. After an eight-game unbeaten streak in the regular season to clinch the playoffs, and two dramatic playoff wins, Rising made the USL Western Conference Final for the first time since 2020, setting up a game against the one-seeded Sacramento Republic FC.
Rising’s success took many of the faithful by surprise.
“I didn’t think we’d make it this far,” Rising fan Tomas Rosales, 24, said. “Like I’m hopeful, don’t get me wrong. I always think we’re going to win the Cup, but realistically I didn’t see us making it this far, let alone going on such a great run in the playoffs after how we ended our season.”
Rising ended their season in erratic fashion. With five games to go, they sat in fourth place in the Western Conference and would have hosted a home playoff game had they maintained their form. Instead, they went on a five-game winless streak and slipped to the sixth seed.
Their uneven form contrasts with the last Rising team that made the Western Conference Final.
The 2020 Rising squad was dominant in a COVID-shortened season, finishing 11-3-2 and securing the top seed. Phoenix won three playoff games on the bounce to make the USL Championship Final, which was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
However, Rising found postseason success hard to come by, even when they were excelling in the regular season. Rising made the USL final in 2018 as the three-seed, but their two best regular-season outings, in 2019 and 2021, resulted in only one playoff win despite finishing as the top seed on both occasions.
“We had great regular seasons, and towards the end of the season they would just have less meaningful games, because they’ve already made the playoffs as the first seed,” Rising fan Michael Vanderplas, 35, said. “It was kind of hard to turn it back on. I think the mentality went away a little bit and that cost us.”
From 2019-2021, Rising was exceptional in the regular season. In 2019, they won 20 games in a row, at the time the longest-winning streak in American soccer history. They eventually lost in the second round of the playoffs to No. 4 Real Monarchs SLC.
Rising coach Juan Guerra has witnessed Rising’s playoff meltdowns in person. He was an assistant coach for the team in the 2021 playoffs when it lost to Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, a team that finished the regular season with 20 fewer points than Rising.
The success Rising experienced in the regular season undermined their focus heading into the playoffs, according to Guerra.
“This year we didn’t get the results we wanted at the end of the season,” Guerra said. “But as a result, the group is more focused. When we lost against RGV two years ago? I had a sense that the group was too relaxed. We had too many weeks where we were qualified, and we were winning a lot of games in a row.
“I’d rather have a group that is focused, that is concentrated and that is not relaxed, and that’s who we are right now.”
There was a target on Rising’s back as the No. 1 seed in the conference. The weight of pressure from other teams and their fans proved too much at times.
“The expectation was always to make a deep run in the playoffs,” Rosales said. “We’ve had so many good memories and great regular seasons, but back then, those teams always seemed to crush it in the regular season and fall apart in the postseason.”
Rising’s poor form in the regular season this year may end up turning into a blessing in disguise.
“I think it’s helped us not coming in with that home playoff spot just because in the past, we’ve kind of taken it for granted,” Rosales said. “This year everybody has underestimated us. The pundits, the teams that we’ve come up against. It’s been an uphill battle for sure, but it comes with a lot less pressure of being the best in the West and everybody’s trying to beat you.”
The adversity Rising has gone through this season has shaped them as a team. They have played more meaningful games than any Rising team has in the past because they had to fight until the last few weeks to secure a playoff spot.
The five-game winless streak at the end of the regular season may have been the fuel for the resilience Rising have demonstrated this postseason.
“They knew they had to be sharp because we didn’t finish the season well, and they also knew that we were not playing at home, that we were playing away, and they were playing a rival that had a great year,” Guerra said.
Their grit and determination, especially at the end of games, has drawn parallels to the 2020 Rising side that conquered all before it.
“Both teams have a lot of fight,” Vanderplas said. “The 2020 team probably wasn’t the most talented, but they fought for each other every game, and this one seems to do the same thing.”
The adversity the Rising players have faced since joining the team has shaped them into a fiercely determined unit, one that aims to continue to defy the odds Saturday against Sacramento.
“Coming to Phoenix, everybody was already asking, ‘Who are these guys? How are they going to represent us?’” Guerra said. “Nine months later, look where we are. Look what the guys have done, look how resilient they’ve been in moments of adversity through a process that is not easy at first.
“They haven’t just been under pressure these last two weeks, these players have been under pressure since day one.”