In his first full season at the helm, 36-year-old Juan Guerra led Phoenix Rising FC to its first USL Championship title in historic fashion. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Juan Guerra typically cuts a calm figure on the sideline.
During his side’s penalty shootout on Sunday night against the Charleston Battery, he was anything but.
“Horrible. I don’t want to do it again,” said Guerra. “If we’re all nervous on the side and just standing there, I can’t imagine how the players feel.”
But in the final game of a season when Phoenix could have been counted out on numerous occasions – including three times this postseason when the side trailed, only to produce moments of magic to keep its hopes alive – the belief the 36-year-old had instilled in his squad this season shone through one final time.
Rallying not only with a 90th-minute equalizer from center back John Stenberg – his first goal of the campaign – but then from a two-goal deficit after two rounds in a penalty shootout, Rising FC claimed its first USL Championship title in epic fashion, defeating the Battery before a sellout crowd of 5,094 fans at Patriots Point.
For a squad that had undergone major changes this offseason as 21 new players arrived before and during the campaign, it was the end of a remarkable journey.
“It’s a great feeling man, just because we started from scratch,” said forward Danny Trejo, who led the team with 19 goals. “We brought a lot of new guys together and from the beginning, we wanted to make sure that we blended with each other and through all the odds we just needed to push one another and that’s what we did. We took it game-by-game, and this is the result of a lot of hard work. I’m very happy for the group and very happy for everybody.”
In the middle of that was Guerra, whose first full year as Rising FC’s Head Coach showed all the characteristics that made him the person Phoenix sought out to right the ship after a tumultuous 2022 campaign.
Whatever befell the team – from outstanding victories to crushing defeats – his even keel kept every player pulling in the same direction.
The decision to change what had been a successful lineup and turn second-leading goalscorer Manuel Arteaga into a potential game-changer off the bench, was a major one. On Sunday night, Arteaga was the man who delivered a decisive finish from the spot before Rocco Rios Novo’s save sealed victory in the fifth round.
“Juan is an amazing leader who sticks to his morals and what his plan is, and he managed to get all these guys – a bunch of new guys – to buy into it,” said Rising FC captain Darnell King. “That just speaks volumes to who he is and what he can do with players. To get them all to galvanize and become one and accomplish something with that amount of new players that we had is amazing.
“You can see throughout the year that we had ups and downs, but he managed to keep us level-headed. He managed to make moves throughout the year that that brought us to this moment. Kudos to him. He was my teammate at one point, and he’s always been that type of person, a great leader.”
Guerra, meanwhile, was quick to deflect the praise toward his squad.
“Tonight is those guys over there,” he said. “They deserve all the credit. They just didn’t give up. They kept pushing forward. It was the first 90 minutes, and then it was the overtime, overcoming the [overturned] penalty call – I didn’t know if it was a penalty or not, I was too far – but that’s difficult. And listen, they didn’t stop.”
Guerra is currently the third-youngest Head Coach in the USL Championship. He’s now the youngest coach to lead his side to a USL Championship title at the age of 36 years, eight months, 27 days old, reaching the top of the league in just his second season as a Head Coach.
Not that something like that will change his outlook on the future.
“Nothing changes,” said Guerra. “I will keep working with the same ambition, with the same level of responsibility, with the same love for the organization that I represent. And for the same love of our players.”
After a historic night – and a historic run, becoming the first team to win the USL Championship title with four consecutive road victories – the night was one to savor for one of the brightest young coaches in North America.
“I’m so happy, man,” said Guerra. “And, I’m so happy for them and their families.”