Phoenix Rising FC's Rocco Rios Novo made seven saves across regulation and extra time and two more in the penalty shootout to claim the 2023 USL Championship Final MVP honors. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
For all his youth, there seemed no-one more relaxed at Patriots Point on Sunday night than Phoenix Rising FC’s Rocco Rios Novo.
He bobbed and danced on his goal-line.
He smiled as each of the Charleston Battery’s shooters approached in the penalty shootout.
He remained that way even when things seemed to being going the wrong direction for Rising FC’s hopes of victory.
And in the fifth round, with the chance to be the hero, he produced the biggest save of his young career, denying Derek Dodson with a fingertip stop onto the left post to seal a 3-2 victory from the spot and Rising FC’s first USL Championship title.
“It’s incredible,” said Phoenix Head Coach Juan Guerra. “He just turned 21 this year. Coming here on loan and feeling the passion and the sense of belonging that we spoke about yesterday, it’s incredible. I’m very, very happy for him.”
The 2023 USL Championship Final Most Valuable Player, who joined Phoenix on loan from Argentine top-flight club Lanus this offseason, is no stranger to the big stage.
Four years ago, he was representing his country at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. A season ago he was thrown in at the deep end as Atlanta United FC weathered a series of goalkeeping injuries and showed flashes of what he was capable of.
But his season in Phoenix has provided a breakthrough that could propel him further. The 21-year-old’s seven saves in regulation and extra time were his second-highest total in a game this season, one shy of the eight stops he made on the road in San Antonio earlier in the season when he played a key role in taking a point on the road at one of the most hostile atmospheres in the USL Championship.
Across the regular season and playoffs, Rios Novo recorded 116 saves and a save percentage of 73.1 percent. His Goals Prevented mark of -6.37 underlined his importance to a Phoenix side that defensively had ups and downs during the campaign and helped secure nomination for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award.
And while not quite the youngest player in the starting lineup for Rising FC on Sunday night – that distinction went to center back Mohamed Traore, two months his junior, who delivered in his own way with the assist on John Stenberg’s late equalizer – Rios Novo showed a calmness that according to teammates is indicative of the personality he brings each day.
“He's very calm,” said Rising FC forward Danny Trejo. “Rocco works hard every day at practice. Anytime he gets the opportunity to prove it, he did it. Today he was there for the challenge, and he deserves it.
“This was his moment to shine, and he did it.”
Wherever Rios Novo’s road goes next as his loan from Lanus comes to a close, his night to remember will be one that lasts long in the memory.