ST. PETERSBURG — Three months before his penalty kick save helped send the Rowdies into the Eastern Conference final, Phil Breno contemplated retirement.
He partly thought about riding out the rest of the 2022 season with USL League One’s Forward Madison FC and then not playing again. He thought about life after soccer — that biology degree, that old dream of attending pharmacy school, that new one of venturing into business. The 26-year-old was in a “dark spot in my life,” grieving the death of his grandfather. The pressure that came with playing and being a starting keeper was “overwhelming.”
In July, Breno woke up one morning and didn’t want to practice. He went through the motions and skipped reps during a lift. When teammates tried to joke, he couldn’t smile.
That same day, Forward Madison coach Matt Glaeser called Breno into a meeting room with other members of the front office. They told Breno he and Raiko Arozarena had been swapped via a loan with the Rowdies. Glaeser and the staff had previously sensed that Breno needed a “fresh start” and “change of scenery,” Glaeser said. Tampa Bay also wanted to get Arozarena — its backup — additional playing time.
Everyone benefited from the result, Rowdies goalkeepers coach Stuart Dobson said. About a month after the trade, Breno said he had “never felt more happy in my entire life.” Tampa Bay’s coaching staff and players had sparked “the start of my healing process.” Breno became their starter after CJ Cochran sustained a season-ending injury and has led the Rowdies to a 6-0-1 record entering Saturday’s conference final against Louisville City FC.
“If you were to tell me I’m in the conference finals for Tampa versus Louisville, there’s no shot I would have ever imagined that at the beginning of the year,” Breno said. “Even halfway through. But yeah, it’s been a wild ride.”
Breno joined Forward Madison in 2021 after two seasons in the USL Championship, where he started 10 matches for the Charleston Battery. Former Forward Madison goalkeepers coach Emerson Lovato pinpointed footwork as an area of improvement for Breno, and Breno occasionally participated in the same drills as other field players — allowing him to hone the same precision and accuracy.
He started 27 of 28 matches that year, but in the offseason, Forward Madison changed coaching staffs. Breno couldn’t quite get into another groove. He didn’t blame the staff or environment, adding that it was more about his situation that sparked the need for a “mental reset.”
Even after the Rowdies acquired Breno, nearly three months passed without an opportunity to appear in a match. But late in a Sept. 17 game against Detroit City FC, Cochran went down. Rowdies players and staff on the sideline thought it was just a minor injury — perhaps a rolled ankle or a move to drain time off the clock. But when Cochran fell down again after initially standing up, Breno prepared to enter.
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Cochran fractured his tibia that night. The starting role became Breno’s.
“That was step No. 1, (Breno) coming in and just finishing out a game that he’s mentally not prepared for,” Dobson said. “He didn’t look out of place. He didn’t look nervous.”
Part of that stemmed from Breno learning to live in the present. He spoke with a mental strength coach, Breno said, and that helped prevent negative thoughts — about outcomes in a game, about individual performances — from creeping into his mind.
Breno’s work translated over to games, too. In last Saturday’s conference semifinal, Memphis 901 FC earned a late penalty kick — threatening to leave the Rowdies no time to create an equalizer. From the Tampa Bay sideline, head coach Neill Collins said he prepared for Memphis to score and for their season to end.
But Aaron Molloy, the player Memphis selected for the kick, was Breno’s teammate in Forward Madison. In addition to the preparation Breno and Dobson did throughout the week, Breno also had the experience of facing 40 to 50 Molloy kicks after practice last year.
Lovato, watching the game, took out his phone and started recording the screen in front of him. He had also faced Molloy’s penalty kicks and knew how difficult they were to stop. But Breno stuck with his gut, which told him to dive right. Molloy kicked to that spot.
In the moment, Breno didn’t think about not making the save. That was a different mindset from a few months ago, he said, and Glaeser added that Breno looks “revitalized.”
His name then became the center of a highlight that circulated around social media, prompting Breno’s phone to blow up like never before with people — including kids — reaching out to say how inspirational his story and performance were.
Lovato sent one of those messages, attaching his video clip, and Breno responded with a laughing text and emoji. That smile, too, was different from just a few months prior.
Up next: Eastern Conference final
at Louisville City FC, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Lynn Family Stadium