Phoenix Rising FC wins USL title in improbable way vs. Charleston Battery

Nov 13, 2023, 7:03 AM | Updated: 7:40 am

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Just like the legend of the Phoenix, Rising FC cannot be killed.

In what was one of the most improbable title runs in all of sports, PRFC rose from the ashes once again to lift its first USL Championship title in club history on Sunday night in Charleston, S.C.

And while the match will technically go down in the record books as a 1-1 draw, Phoenix claimed the trophy with a 3-2 penalty-shootout win over Charleston Battery at Patriot Point Soccer Stadium.

“No. 1, by far,” PRFC manager Juan Guerra said of where this ranks in his professional career while holding back tears. “Seeing players cry after the game, seeing the staff cry after the game, being able to hug my wife and the kids after the game — it’s unbelievable. My brother is here. My parents flew from Europe 24 hours ago.

“It’s being able to give back to thousands. It’s finding out that all the sports teams in Phoenix were supporting us. It’s finding out that the city hall is lit up in red in Phoenix. … That’s massive and that means a lot to me.”

Rising managed to accomplish a feat that no club had ever done in the history of USL Championship: win every single playoff match on the road en route to winning the league title.

But it was the manner in which all four of those postseason games were played that makes the statistical likelihood of this run so improbable.

Having finished as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, Phoenix eliminated the entire California coast by knocking out the top three seeds in No. 3 San Diego Loyal, No. 2 Orange County and No. 1 Sacramento Republic.

“What has happened this last month … These guys don’t know how to die,” Guerra said. “These guys don’t know how to give up.

“I’m a stubborn person, but these guys are way more stubborn than I am. And I am so so glad that I’m with them right now and I’m happy that they get to celebrate with the whole organization.”

And if that feat wasn’t impressive enough, PRFC trailed in three of the four matches while also requiring extra time in three of the four games as well.

Here is where the improbable factor really comes in, though, as Rising scored five goals and conceded once in the final 10 minutes in each and every playoff match to either win or extend the game into extra time.

Sunday night was no different and followed that pattern to a T after Phoenix equalized in the final minute of the match before once again going down 2-0 in the penalty shootout.

Center back John Stenberg headed in the game-tying goal in the 90th minute after Mo Traore tracked down a crosser and sent the ball back into traffic.

Twenty-one-year-old goalie Rocco Rios Novo earned the MVP honors with seven saves across 120 minutes and two more in penalties. The game came down to Battery’s Derek Dodson knicking the post on the fifth and final penalty kick, giving Rising the victory.

“When adversity comes, you don’t back down. You keep pushing forward,” Guerra said. “When adversity hit us … those were nights that we pushed forward. Those were nights I challenged the players to be ready on Monday when they came in, we didn’t let them have it. I think that builds resiliency, that builds character.

“This is a group of savages. I’ve never seen something like this.”

The match proved to be a full-circle moment, as PRFC both started and ended the season with a 1-1 draw away to Charleston Battery.

It also saw the return of Kevon Lambert, who attended the final following his penalty-shootout loss to the Houston Dynamo in the MLS playoffs on Saturday. And rightfully so for the team captain prior to his departure to Real Salt Lake in August, the Jamaican international was given a winner’s medal.

And now that the “job is finally done,” Guerra still has one more dream he’d like to achieve after winning the first title in Phoenix Rising history in his first full year at the helm and only the second season of his managerial career.

“I have many dreams,” Guerra said. “Tonight, one of them came through.

“(Winning the title at home in Phoenix), that’s another dream — not just for me — but also for a lot of people. We should try to make that happen.”

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