Phoenix Rising FC enters new season ready to defend USL Championship title

Phoenix Rising FC’s title in 2023 means they are a “target as reigning champions,” first-year coach Danny Stone said. (File photo by William Scott/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A new reality begins for Phoenix Rising FC Saturday. For the first time in franchise history, the club is the defending title-holder of the USL Championship. After making the league’s playoff as a sixth place team, the Rising are ready to run it back, with targets on their backs.

“It’s something I’ve referenced a few times. Again, we’re aware of that target as reigning champions,” first-year coach Danny Stone said. “We’re aware of it. We’ve discussed this as a team and we are ready for that challenge.”

They will open at home against Birmingham Legion, a team that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference last season. To fans though, Phoenix will have a very different look from top to bottom.

The Rising, after winning their first USL Championship, are entering the season without 16 of the players that got them to Charlotte. Even with that turnover, the most notable shift was in the coaching staff.

The team will be led by a few new faces. After former coach Juan Guerra left for a job with the Houston Dynamo, the rising stayed with the familiar and hired Stone to lead the team.

Stone was already an established part of the Rising staff, serving as an assistant coach for the past two seasons. He also has ties to the Valley after spending time in Tempe attending Corona del Sol High School after growing up in Liverpool, England.

“It’s a moment that I’ve thought about for a while now,” Stone said on his head coaching debut. “We don’t feel like what we were able to achieve last year means that we have any different approach to this season.”

Phoenix’s previous captain, Darnell King, will still be with the club, but not as a player. King announced in January that he will move into a coaching role for 2024.

In place of King, Rising fans were introduced to their new captain at the team’s recent kit reveal event in Tempe.

A large crowd showed up to support the reigning champions and admire uniforms. Rising players modeled the gold trimmed kits along with new merchandise for the club before the news of the night broke: Defender John Stenberg was name the team’s next captain, an announcement that was well received by fans.

”For the time he was with us in the second half of last season, he immediately made an impact on the field. He immediately made a big impact off the field as well,” Stone said. “His influence on the team is large, his personality in the dressing room is a big one. … It was a choice that was a clear one for me and I’m very very happy to give him that leadership role.”

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The most glaring absence might be that of Daniel Trejo. The forward led the Phoenix offense last year with 19 goals but this season will be playing in Poland.

Along with Trejo, Manuel Arteaga, the club’s second-highest goal scorer left as well. Arteaga’s departure to Tampa Bay leaves forward Dariusz Formella as the leading returner on offense.

Fans were ecstatic to welcome back some of the playoff stars from last season. Defender Emil Cuello along with goalie and playoff MVP Rocco Rios Novo who re-signed with the Rising this offseason received a heroes welcome as they were introduced.

“We’re very aware of who we represent,” said Stone on the reception from the community. “To see them out here is the first step really in thanking them for their support ahead of time. We will ask them for a lot more as the season goes and they’ll ask us for the same. So it’s a two-way street. But we look forward to representing them and the city of Phoenix as a whole.”

Many of the fans are ready for the long haul with the Rising. Recent years have seen a growth in popularity for soccer among fans in Phoenix, including longtime supporter Kieran Thompson and his 4-year-old daughter.

“I want her to grow up with this club and have something that’s meaningful and special,” he said. “The same way people who grew up in other parts of the world have their local club and have that passion.”

That passion has driven Stone along with the organization to improve, especially in front of their home crowd. At Phoenix Rising Stadium, the team went 12-10-12, a mark Stone is determined to better.

This year, success will require contributions from the entire roster. The Rising might just have the team to pull it off. It all starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Stephen Buxton expects to graduate May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Buxton has experience with Varsity Sports Show calling football games for Desert Mountain this last season and AZPreps 365 reporting on local high school sports. After graduating he hopes to get a broadcasting job dreaming of one day doing play by play for football or baseball.