Amidst controversy, Juan Guerra will try to lead Phoenix Rising into a new era

Quick Hits
  • Phoenix Rising, who have been one of the best teams in the USL over the last few seasons, are struggling this year
  • They recently parted ways with head coach Rick Schantz and controversially hired Juan Guerra away from a Western Conference rival
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In 2019, Phoenix Rising famously went on a home winning streak exceeding a dozen games on “Dollar Beer Night”, setting the league alight under coach Rick Schantz. Fast forward to 2022, and the Rising faithful have needed more than a few drinks to deal with a stretch of just one win in 13 games. Phoenix Rising are sitting eight points below the playoff line and in 11th place in the Western Conference. They also have a bottom-five defense in the West, based on goals allowed.

Two weeks ago, Schantz was let go as manager, and Juan Guerra was controversially hired away from the Oakland Roots to replace him.

How did Phoenix get to this point?

Things turned south for Phoenix early in 2022 amidst defensive issues, midfield sloppiness, and a locker room gone sour. 

It became clear after a crushing loss to lowly Loudoun United in June that Phoenix needed a change, but the switch didn’t come until a couple of months later. The club deserves credit for parting with Schantz by mutual consent. The manager had been key to forging Phoenix’s identity since they rebranded away from the Arizona United moniker: he oversaw that “Dollar Beer” run and won two conference titles with Phoenix.

Schantz is from Arizona and he’s a talented tactical mind, but things had gone stale.

Still, the club’s handling of the replacement process garnered derision. Guerra, one of Schantz’s former assistants and the head coach of the Oakland Roots this year, was suddenly placed on disciplinary leave by his club on August 18. According to reports, Phoenix Rising reached out to Guerra about the open coaching job without the Roots’ approval.

The USL Championship’s by-laws forbid communication between teams and players who are under contract with a different team, but do not have similar regulations regarding coaches or other employees. Regardless, Phoenix’s effort to poach a rival manager in the midst of the playoff race – Oakland is ninth, four points ahead of Rising – was a controversial move. Guerra’s hiring was confirmed on August 22 and he made his debut on the sidelines for Phoenix on Saturday.

Phoenix lost 3-1 away to El Paso, who are seventh in the West, and were roundly outplayed. Oakland had out-performed expectations in 2022 thanks to Guerra’s unique system featuring the most aggressive wingbacks in the league and one of the USL’s fiercest presses. This weekend, Phoenix played with an unbalanced 4-4-2 shape that rendered itself both weak on the wings and slow in the center. The Locomotive ran rampant as Rising’s playoff hopes grew ever fainter.

Looking to 2023

Closing out the USL season with a string of wins would be nice for Phoenix, but Guerra’s impact and legacy will not be decided in 2022. In the East Bay, he was given the chance to forge a roster and system in his image using a group of young, hungry players. Phoenix’s changing room is unsettled, their hopes for the season are dim, and any faults for the rest of the campaign shouldn’t fall on the new coach’s shoulders. 

With experience as an assistant at multiple clubs in the USL Championship and his time as a player, Guerra brings a wealth of perspective from across the USL. The club’s progress in 2023 will determine whether Phoenix’s decision to hire him was a useful part of their refresh or a high-profile mistake.