Whatever you call a Phoenix Rising against New Mexico United clash, just don’t call it a rivalry. That’s what Rising’s fans will tell you.
It’s a statement of contempt, based on the fact that until May of last year, New Mexico had yet to win a game in open play in any of the seven meetings between the sides.
Mere contempt, of course, isn’t an argument for taking this game as seriously as a league match. For years, Rising has used the U.S. Open Cup as an excuse to rotate players. That includes in matchups against United in each of the last two editions.
But contempt isn’t a word you can use to describe Rising fans’ feelings towards United any more. Nor is it as simple as most rivalries in USL, forged by proximity with a desire to slap some form of name on the clash in an attempt at making it resemble one of the more weathered, decades-old clásicos from around the globe.
The feeling instead, on Rising fans’ part at least, resembles more a visceral hatred. It was lit and stoked by the actions of New Mexico, as well as the league office, for the eighth and most recent clash between the sides.
“Even when I wasn’t part of the organization, with whatever happened last year, I was bothered,” now-Rising coach Juan Guerra said.
Bothered, too, was Darnell King, walking off the field in Albuquerque on that Tuesday evening in 2022.
He was one of a handful of senior players to make the trip to New Mexico for that game. The look of disgust on his face at the match, the reaction of the crowd, and the final result were a picture.
That game wasn’t supposed to happen on a Tuesday night. In fact, it was supposed to take place a few days earlier in the regular Saturday evening slot. Yet on the Friday, shortly before departure, one of Rising’s first choice players tested positive for COVID-19, setting in motion a series of contact tracing efforts that forced 11 other members of the team to isolate as a precaution.
Out of those 11, one more would test positive before their isolation concluded.
That match was the fourth to be postponed for COVID-related reasons in the 2022 season. It was the first to be played, and the only one to take place during that isolation period.
“We couldn’t find a date we could use where there wasn’t UNM football; there wasn’t Isotopes,” United chief business officer Ron Patel said in an interview with Albuqerque’s KMGG-LP at the time. “Also, we were coordinating with Phoenix’s schedule because they’ve got a whole national schedule that they’re playing around the country. It was really, really difficult, so when the league offered to play this Tuesday, we said let’s do it because otherwise we might risk having to go play this game on the road.”
After the match, then-Rising coach Rick Schantz disagreed with that assertion. Club president Bobby Dulle said, both before and after the rescheduled game, that the league office only consulted with Phoenix after determining the match would be made up in the same week.
So, concluding the match with seven high schoolers on the field and another on the bench in case he was needed in net, Rising fell by seven goals to nil. “SLAYED,” proclaimed New Mexico United’s twitter account.
SLAYED. Goals from @wehan_14, @TinPortillo (2X), @Harryswa1, Cristian Nava and @danielrbruce! #NewMexicoTrue pic.twitter.com/1njO7dKz0F
— New Mexico United (@NewMexicoUTD) May 25, 2022
As the months passed, and other United games were rescheduled to other dates, owner Peter Trevisani took to twitter to like at least one tweet poking fun at Rising fans for protesting.
Those with knowledge of the situation point to a substantially more lax approach to contact tracing across USL ever since. It’s hard to expect that to be anything other than a reaction to the sheer farce the game presented.
That collective memory of the feelings of injustice last year must now guide Phoenix Rising as it takes on the neighboring state once more. This isn’t just another Open Cup game. This isn’t just an extra match against a team it feels like Rising faces too often anyway. This is a chance to make a statement.
In part, that’s a responsibility on Darnell King. He’s one of just two returning players, alongside Carlos Anguiano, to have been there that night. Despite seeming increasingly sidelined in the matchday squad, he still holds the armband.
It’s a responsibility, too, on Juan Guerra. He wasn’t with Rising at the time, but still has to impart upon its players the importance of this clash. All preseason, Guerra has stressed on pushing the players have to understand who they represent. Now, he has the task of conveying what this match represents, and just why it matters so much.
“We want to make sure that we can go over there, put together a good gameplan that leads to a very good result that our fanbase is going to enjoy very much, and also a lot of kids that are not here right now can enjoy from wherever they’re watching,” Guerra said last week.
Those kids, for whom college since called, need to be at the center of this.
This game is for Zak Smith, who described the opportunity to play in USL as a dream come true. It’s for Thomas Knight and Kevin Mearse who fought well for the crest on their chest. It’s for Blaize Hardy, coming off the bench and trying to take on opposition himself. It’s for Jacob Harris, Josh Martinez and Luke Schaefer, who went the full 90 minutes. Despite not appearing off the bench, it’s for that night’s backup keeper Jack Baker too.
It’s for the Baby Birds, as Schantz called them, or for Los Niños Héroes, as they were affectionately dubbed by the fans.
Despite the odds they faced, and despite the goals they conceded, they battled until the end. That’s the message that Rising’s mostly-new roster needs to understand, and the spirit they must embody.
The Phoenix fans saw that valiant effort from their youngsters last year even as they fell. Now, with a full professional squad available and an opportunity to avenge last year, they aren’t going to, nor should they, accept anything less than the same level of desire from all going into this match.
Top photo: Phoenix Rising FC