PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising FC was never supposed to be this close to winning a USL Championship Cup. Against all odds, with minutes left in a 1-1 tie Saturday in the Western Conference Final, the sixth-seeded Rising were aiming to do what had never been done before against the best team in the West, Sacramento Republic FC.
After years of near misses, Rising were looking to exorcise their playoff demons in the most tricky of circumstances.
No USL team had ever beaten the top three seeds away from home on their way to the final, and Phoenix was up against a juggernaut.
Sacramento won the Western Conference by seven points and had only lost two home games all season on its way to cruising in normal time through the club’s first two playoff games at home, while Rising endured two physically and emotionally grueling extra-time games.
But this Rising team was different from the ones that fell apart in the playoffs despite dominating the regular season in previous seasons.
Rising’s struggles throughout the season shaped them into a resilient force, one that was able to turn it on in pivotal moments.
With three minutes left Saturday, Emil Cuello won the ball high up the pitch, drove at the goal and unleashed a fierce, swerving shot on-goal from 30 yards out that beat the goalkeeper.
Game over, 2-1, Rising.
Phoenix earned a spot in the USL Championship Final Sunday against the winner of the Eastern Conference Final, Charleston Battery, five years from its most recent final appearance, a 1-0 loss to Louisville City FC. Rising also made the final in 2020, but the match was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Three playoff games, three last-minute winners against higher-seeded teams from California – and Cuello had his footprints all over each win as the key goals either involved or were scored by him.
Not only had Rising beaten the three best teams in the Western Conference away from home, but they were the first team seeded sixth or lower to make the USL Championship Final since the eighth-seeded Harrisburg City Islanders in 2014.
Rising coach Juan Guerra attributed their win to his players’ strength in the face of adversity.
“At the end of the day this is because of them,” Guerra said. “We’re celebrating tonight because they’ve been challenged, they’ve been demanded, they’ve been pushed, they’ve been criticized and they kept on pushing forward.
“This is a group of players that truly believes in what we’re building, and tonight they deserve it.”
Rising’s success is more impressive considering the circumstances in which they achieved it. They had to move from their previous home in Wild Horse Pass last November to a new home in downtown Phoenix after the owners of the lands, the Gila River Indian Community, had other plans for the property.
Guerra & Co. also completely revamped the roster after missing the 2022 playoffs for the first time in six seasons. They brought in 21 new players in the offseason, and two more over the course of the season. Only one player who had featured for Rising in the playoffs before, Darnell King, traveled to Sacramento.
Rising’s recruitment paid off, as their strength in depth has been vital in the postseason. Playoff hero Cuello came off the bench in all three games.
“Everyone that is part of that roster is important,” Guerra said. “Everybody plays a key role in everything we do: the guys that are starting, the guys that are not starting, the guys that are not dressing, the guys that didn’t travel. Everybody plays a key role in what we’re doing.”
Rising’s ability to come back late has been a theme throughout the season, even if their performances have been uneven.
They rescued 11 points from losing positions. Those 11 points were the difference between making the playoffs and missing out.
They also led the league in goals scored by substitutes with 11 and goals scored in the last 15 minutes with 19.
All three playoff games featured goals either scored or assisted by a substitute, and in all three they scored the winning goal with less than five minutes left in the game.
Heading to Charleston is a full-circle moment for the team, which started the season with a 1-1 against the Battery and hope to end it with Rising’s first USL Championship.
After years of near misses, and even a canceled final in 2020, Rising have the opportunity Sunday to exorcise the demons of the past after a most unlikely playoff run.