PHOENIX – It’s been three years since the words “Western Conference Final” have resonated with Phoenix Rising FC.
Upon their success in the 2020 Western Conference Final, Rising encountered the unfortunate obstacle of COVID-19, preventing them from competing in the USL Championship match.
This Saturday, the organization is eager to rewrite its misfortune, looking to pull off a California sweep against the No. 1-seeded Sacramento Republic FC on the road, where Phoenix Rising FC has been warriors in the 2023 playoffs.
“They are a good team, and so are we,” Rising defender John Stenberg said. “Of course, the pressure is a little bit more on them playing at home. We just got to enjoy the moment, play our game, and stick to what we love to do. It’s going to be fun.”
As Rising travels to Sacramento, the potential challenge of fatigue sets in, especially considering the heightened physicality of playoff matches and having already played two overtime games, both in California. Phoenix beat San Diego Loyal SC 4-3 in the Western Conference quarterfinal Oct. 22, and continued the theme the following weekend, again on the road, with a 2-1 win against Orange County SC in the semifinal.
Nonetheless, the team’s objective remains crystal clear, and their focus on the ultimate goal is unwavering.
“A lot of momentum, but also a lot of miles and distances in the legs of our players,” Rising coach Juan Guerra said after the semifinal match. “Right away, I hugged (forward Danny) Trejo and three other players, and the first thing they said to me is, ‘We’re not done,’ and that speaks high volumes about their mentality and how focused we are on the objective.”
Though heading into game number 38 with the prospect of extra time is less than perfect, in the grand scheme of things, a win is a win, and in the playoffs, it’s all about advancing.
“Right now, whatever it takes to get the win, we will do it,” Rising defender Mohamed Traore said. “We are all locked in. All the boys are feeling great and we are ready to go.”
Phoenix last won a playoff game in regular time in 2018, seemingly an eternity. The anomaly remains a mystery, but both players and staff are ready for whatever comes their way.
“If you ask me, I don’t care if we win it in 90, if we win it in 120, or if we win it in penalty kicks,” Guerra said. “At the end of the day, the important thing is that we keep advancing, we keep winning and that the boys keep believing.
“We have the tools and we have the assets to be able to go for 120 minutes or penalties, and we prepare for absolutely everything.”
It was yet another nail-biting extra-time victory that propelled them to this stage. In the 116th minute of the semifinals against Orange County SC, substitute Emil Cuello’s late goal clinched Rising’s second win against a higher-seeded California team in these playoffs.
Venturing to the Golden State capital, the Republic defeated San Antonio FC in dominant fashion, winning the Oct. 27 semifinal match 3-1 in what appeared to be a clean sheet until a late 90th-minute goal was allowed.
Rising holds an all-time record of 8-8-8 in battles with Sacramento Republic FC, mirroring the evenness of their season series. The winner of this contest will shift this equilibrium.
Throughout the playoffs, Guerra has maintained a consistent strategy. He again chose to utilize center forward Manuel Arteaga as a substitute to provide a varied offensive threat, fully aware of the distinct styles that Arteaga and Dariusz Formella bring to the table.
As mentioned in previous media availabilities, the significance of possessing “22 starters” on the roster has helped in crafting strategic game plans. This approach was evident through his deployment of the entire bench in both playoff games, which led to the game-winning connection between Erickson Gallardo and Cuello.
“All I was thinking was when I sub Eddie, he’s going to put in (forward Bryce) Jamison,” Guerra said when asked about his substitutions. “It was one of those I felt like we had the possibility of going after the game. I knew the players they had on their bench and as soon as they made that sub, look what happened. They put in Jamison to give speed on that side and we decided to put in Emil to progress the ball a little bit, break lines and arrive late into the box.
“I’m very happy for all of them. They are training well, coming into games well, and they come into games understanding the assignment. They understand that everyone on this roster is important, that there are roles they might play in different games and they believe in those roles.”
Facing a team that boasts the league’s lowest goal concession at just 27 and ranks first with 15 clean sheets, the necessity for consistent adjustments in strategies and lineups persists to help Rising’s goal scorers overcome one of the USL’s most formidable backlines.
The good thing is, coupled with Guerra’s adaptability, Trejo has regained his rhythm, finding the back of the net in each of their playoff matches after a goal-less spell of over a month.
“I think a little bit is we know that it’s playoffs, you know, obviously we lose, we’re out,” Trejo said. “Obviously, for me, I know the hard work that I put in, so anytime I get to prove it in these games, I’m going to be ready. These are games that I’ve been getting ready (for) since I started the season. And we won this game, very proud of the group, the coaching staff, the fans, everybody. But we keep going.”
Besides their stout backline, the Republic have multiple players who can make a significant impact with the ball at their feet, whether its goal scoring or assists. Apart from their unyielding defensive unit, the Republic’s roster includes multiple players who are adept with the ball at their feet.
Guerra has pointed to July 26 as a critical juncture this season, as the club found itself 10th in the Western Conference standings after a 4-0 blowout loss to Sacramento on the road.
“That game was a turning point for us in some way,” Traore said. “It was a hard slap to take on the face because we didn’t play how we were supposed to. If you don’t play well, you see the results. But now, we will be different.”
Much like their approach in their two playoff fixtures, the Republic continued with their reliable 3-4-2-1 formation, a system that has consistently served them well throughout the season.
Under the leadership of their lone striker, Russell Cicerone, the Republic successfully managed to involve all their vital attacking players in the match.
In the early stages of the game, the opening goal was netted by inside forward Keko, currently fourth in the league with nine assists. He capitalized on a pass from Jack Gurr, who completed the season ranking sixth in chances created with 62 and second in crosses with 214.
Merely eight minutes after that, Cicerone, the USL’s sixth-leading goal scorer with 16 goals, added another to that tally.
With the halftime whistle approaching, the Republic secured two additional goals, one of which saw Gurr switching to the role of goal scorer, while Keko became the assist provider.
Seeing Rising adopt a 4-4-2 formation in this match was an unusual sight, as the team is typically recognized for its standard three-man backline.
While enjoying a 59- 41 possession edge, Rising encountered challenges in hitting the target, connecting only two shots on goal out of 10 total attempts. On the other hand, the Republic attempted 12 shots with nine on goal.
Given the steadfast nature of their defense, Rising must effectively neutralize and limit an offense that ranks sixth in the league with 452 shot attempts.
Rising’s performance in their second matchup against Sacramento on Aug. 30 sent a powerful message as they conquered the Western Conference’s top-ranked team with a 2-1 victory at home, propelling them into the playoff race, from which they never looked back.
“I think we played a solid game defensively,” Stenberg said. “We know that when we do that, we have big opportunities to win the game because of our attacking players and how we score goals. I think we did a good job defensively in that game so it’s the same going into this game. We have to be solid at the back.”
While both teams showed hesitancy in conceding the initial goal early in the game, Trejo and Arteaga altered the course of the game by scoring within a four-minute window in the 60th minute.
An unexpected stumble during a corner kick in the 84th minute dashed Rising’s aspirations of preserving a clean sheet. However, the game’s true narrative centered around Rising’s defense, which limited Sacramento’s playmakers to just five shot attempts, with only two on target.
Among the substitutes for Guerra in this game, Formella was the only player who didn’t make an appearance.
Both games were notably intense, featuring 26 fouls in the first match and 27 in the second.
In the wake of their Western Conference semifinal triumph, Guerra promised that the next match would be “another battle,” and it’s likely the most difficult of them all.
No matter the coaching strategies in place, it ultimately boils down to the players. Going up against the Western Conference’s top team is no small task, but the resounding message is clear, as the team noted on its Instagram post: “We aren’t done yet. The journey continues.”
“At the end of the day this group is so resilient,” Guerra said. “They stayed focused, they understood the assignment and at the end of the day, I’m just the guy standing on the sideline. This is all the players, it’s their heart, their belief and they just keep pushing forward. This team doesn’t back down, this team doesn’t quit.”
The match is scheduled for kickoff Saturday at 7 p.m. at Heart Health Park, with action broadcast live on ESPN+.