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Defending champs Phoenix Rising won title match with key boost from player who had Valley fever

After a dramatic championship last year, Phoenix Rising Football Club begins defense of its United Soccer League title on Saturday.

Last year’s finale featured a season-saving goal in the waning moments that came from a player battling an undiagnosed case of Valley fever.

Members of Phoenix Rising scrimmaged on a practice pitch. Missing from the action was John Stenberg. He was stuck on the sideline doing rehab exercises.

“This one is not an injury, it's a disease,” Stenberg said.

A cold Stenberg felt coming on after the semifinal spiraled into a week in bed. He didn’t eat or drink before the championship.

Defeat seemed imminent for Phoenix Rising before Stenberg scored with a late head shot, broke the hearts of the local crowd, and excited ESPN 2’s Mike Watts.

“Back from the dead in the 90th minute. And wouldn’t you know it. John Stenberg’s first for the club keeps their title hopes alive,” Watts said.

Hopes eventually became reality for the now defending champions.

Stenberg found out he had Valley fever the following week. The dangerous and regionally unique fungal infection has a wide range of symptoms.

Stenberg said he has little recollection of the title match.

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.