Back on track: Phoenix Rising gaining momentum after slow start following USL Championship

(Video by Marco Radice-Morras/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – An 87th-minute winner sent roars into the desert sky.

It was a moment that defined a shifting direction. Dariusz Formella secured his brace and three points for Phoenix Rising against Orange County last Friday, moving his squad into fourth place in the Western Conference.

Fourteen games into the season, the Rising are back on track after a temporary hangover from last season’s USL Championship win.

“As a team, we were not consistent through the first half of the season,” said Formella, whose squad visits El Paso Locomotive Saturday. “We had a lot of good performances, but not good results. I hope this game will be a big step and we can start a winning streak.”

The post-championship season has brought a lot of turnover and change to the club in multiple areas.

Most notable was the departure of coach Juan Guerra, who is now an assistant manager for MLS side Houston Dynamo. Guerra spent two seasons at the helm with a record of 21-13-16. He left the reins to his assistant manager, Danny Stone.

Stone, born in Liverpool, England, attended Corona del Sol High School in Tempe when he was 15. He eventually returned home to England where he played professionally for Blackburn Rovers and Notts County.

Stone took over a squad that looked a little different compared to the championship side that lined-up against Charleston last November in the title game.

The biggest piece missing is Danny Trejo, who scored 19 goals and provided seven assists in Rising’s championship campaign. In the offseason, he decided to head overseas and sign with Polish club Korona Kielce.

Trejo wasn’t the only one. Midfielder Carlos Harvey departed for MLS club Minnesota United. Forward Manuel Arteaga and defender Eddie Munjoma left for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. And now defender Darnell King is an assistant manager for the club.

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However, when you win a championship, more positives than negatives typically emerge. The USL champion receives $300,000, which can help the club both financially and in the transfer market.

Not to mention holding the title of defending champion adds an extra incentive for players to join the club.

One of the biggest additions this year has been Rémi Cabral, who is on loan from the Colorado Rapids. Cabral has scored a team-high seven goals, filling an important hole up top while Formella was on a break from the team due to the birth of his child. With both players healthy, the squad is finally at full strength, and in a different spot compared to a few months ago.

At that time in late March, the Rising were off to a rocky start, losing three of their first four matches. But over the last seven matches, they have only lost one game, looking to continue the success into the coming weeks.

“Every time we get three points, the following game can really compound that and make last week’s three points even better,” Stone said. “We go into the game this weekend with a target of claiming seven points out of these last three games. To be consistent, a team that gets wins is absolutely the next sort of evolution I think for this team.”

Much of their success has come at home, where they have posted a 4-3-1 record. Strong fan support is partially due to the success of last season, but also greater effort from within the club to promote the Rising.

“Having a complete offseason, where we weren’t worried about moving the stadium but we could focus on the business side of things, has certainly helped,” Rising president Bobby Dulle said. “We’re always asking for feedback, doing surveys. We are trying to see what works, getting new people out who haven’t been to a game at Phoenix Rising. And we pride ourselves in trying to be accessible and affordable.”

With all the effort made off the field, the improved play on it is sure to help fill up the stands even more as the season progresses.

The Rising sit only six points off the top of the Western Conference. This weekend, they head to Texas to face bottom of the table El Paso with a chance for back-to-back wins.

The start to the season was not what the reigning champions antcipated. But come Saturday night, the Rising can continue their run of form, and maybe convince fans that the magic of last season could fall into this one.

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Jack Reeves expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He previously graduated in May 2023 from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in sports public relations.

Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Marco Radice-Morras expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Radice-Morras will intern as a reporter for Telemundo Arizona in the fall.