On Sunday night, the Phoenix Rising achieved an incredible comeback win on the road for the fourth week in a row, defeating the Charleston Battery 3-2 in the USL Championship Final.
John Stenberg, a defender, scored a header in the 90th minute to level the score at 1-1. Then, forward Manuel Arteaga confidently put the decisive goal in during penalties, though the team had previously gone down 0-2.
The Rising earned their first USL championship trophy in the seven years since the team was founded, following three attempts to make it to the title game.
In his postgame interview, Stenberg expressed difficulty in finding the right words. He noted that the season had been a roller-coaster ride, with the team often coming back from a deficit in the playoffs. He expressed his pride in the team, club, organization, and the fans for contributing to the performance in the playoffs.
The Rising, in the 2023 playoffs, achieved unbelievable success by scoring in the 119th, 116th, 92nd and 90th minutes against No. 3 San Diego Loyal SC, No. 2 Orange County SC, No. 1 Sacramento Republic FC and Charleston respectively. All of these accomplishments occurred away from their home turf, against higher seeded teams.
The Rising’s chances of winning in penalties seemed slim after their first two attempts failed. Emil Cuello, who had been the team’s hero for the past few weeks with his game-winning goals, tried to chip the ball over Charleston’s Trey Muse on the first attempt. However, the shot was collected by Muse. When coach Juan Guerra called on defender Daniel Krutzen for the second penalty, Muse was there once more to keep the ball out of the goal.
Even prior to Stenberg’s header, it was evident that the Rising were likely to emerge victorious. He then sealed the result by scoring with a precise header shortly before the conclusion of the match.
Renzo Zambrano came up with a tremendous shot to the top right corner, to keep the team in the running for the title, while Leland Archer’s try was off the mark, making it 2-1 and Erickson Gallardo came up to take the penalty kick.
At Patriots Point stadium, Gallardo moved up to the ball energetically and then tucked it in, resulting in a 2-2 tie. Everyone was in shock, as the Rising had recovered from an almost impossible situation twice in a row. The Battery now had the pressure on them.
Rocco Rios Novo was able to keep the attempt by Charleston midfielder Chris Allan out of the net, leaving it to Manuel Arteaga, one of the top scorers in the league, to put his team ahead. As he had done all season, Arteaga was up to the challenge and made the goal, setting up a dramatic potential finale.
When stakes were highest, it was only fitting that Rios Novo, the USL leader in saves with 116, was the one to shut down Charleston defender Derek Dodson, as the shot struck the left post to give the team the Championship.
Novo Rios, a goalie who is the second-youngest in the league’s annals, earned the MVP award. He had a total of seven stops during the game.
In the past, the Rising had gotten extremely close to the title. Two years ago, they lost 1-0 in the championship to Louisville. Then, in 2019, they had one of their greatest seasons, clinching the USL regular season crown before falling to Austin Bold FC during a nerve-wracking 8-7 penalty shootout in the first round. Last year, they made another impressive run in the playoffs, beating the El Paso Locomotives 5-4 in a penalty shootout to win the Western Conference Final. Tragically, the Rising’s rivals in the final, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, had an outbreak of COVID-19, causing the game to be called off.
It has been a speedy rebuilding process for the championship under the head coach, Guerra, who was appointed 447 days ago, coming from the Oakland Roots. He has reconstructed the roster practically from the ground up in a span of 14 months while providing the players with a sense of direction.
On Sunday, the dream of a USL trophy finally became reality.
Prior to the squad’s departure for South Carolina, Guerra noted that the squad never gives in. This assertion was proven true throughout the entire season, even as hope began to fade. Everyone on the team believed in Guerra’s message and kept fighting until the very end, culminating in an incredible, unforgettable season.
This incredible journey through the USL playoffs will certainly be remembered for many years to come.