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Eastern Conference Preview: Rochester Rhinos

BACKGROUND
You know them. You love to hate them: hate them for their playing style, hate them for the fact that they denied Louisville City a title shot in their first season, hate them because of their fans….or just hate them for no reason at all. But the fact remains that Rochester is the defending USL champions. However, the club has seen some drastic changes this offseason. At times, Rochester had the feel of being in a soap opera, but as the season bears down, it appears that things have calmed down.
The drama began when in early January, when the USL announced they had taken over the club after rescinding the ownership license from the previous owners. This was due in large part to having lost the lease for their stadium. Their new owners are minority owners of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA, so at least now the club, the fans, and the league On March 10th, new ownership was unveiled along with a shiny new logo, a professional look versus the previous one that looked like it was thrown together on Microsoft Paint in ten minutes.

The club has a fairly rich history, having won four titles in their twenty years of existence. They are also the only non-MLS club since the creation of the league to ever win the US Open Cup, doing so back in 1999. In their twenty years of playing, just one time (in 2013) have they failed to make it to the playoffs. This is a club that is always competitive and should continue to be this season. The club is affiliated with the New England Revolution in the MLS and unlike our partnership with Orlando City, the Rhinos actually get players from their MLS big brother during the season.

PLAYERS
Rochester won the title last year in very large part to their defense and their back line, setting numerous defensive records on the season. However, the team has lost a lot of talent, especially in the back. I reached out to a Coopers twitter favorite, Brendan Doherty of the USL Show, for some help hashing together all the moves that have been made this offseason. And boy, have there been a lot of them….
“You might be able to pull some evidence together that the uncertainty with the team’s future led players to sign elsewhere, but there are other just-as-plausible explanations. Players like Alex Dixon, Colin Rolfe, and Julian Ringhof wanted a more prominent role so they moved to Jacksonville, SLC, and Arizona, respectively.
 
The loss of fullbacks Pat McMahon and Onua Obasi, who were everpresent the past two seasons, is a big blow. McMahon followed the paycheck to Cincinnati and Obasi wanted to challenge himself to a higher level in Ottawa. Beyond that, seeing USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller leave for Orange County was a tough one to swallow. Miller had spent three seasons as a backup before putting up record numbers in 2015.
 
A nice core of 10 players are returning from the championship winning team. Goalkeeper Adam Grinwis showed his ability last year but found it hard to get a game in with Miller’s season. Vasilis Apostolopoulos, the big Greek centerback, was not only good in the air but also had an impressive range of passing out of the back. Mike Garzi and Sean Totsch are different players stylistically but both played a number of roles for the Rhinos last year and they’re back. Captain Tony Walls was on trial with Minnesota earlier but he’s returning and will be the engine for Rochester again. Marcos Ugarte is a speedy winger with some promise and Kenardo Forbes was voted MVP by his teammates last year. Forbes also had that stunning volley in Rochester against Louisville in June so he’s capable of the spectacular. That leaves us with the three returning forwards. Christian Volesky and Steevan Humberto Fortes “Duba” dos Santos both led the team in scoring in the regular season and offer something different to a lineup. Championship hero Asani Samuels is also back has spent the preseason with the team instead of finishing his college semester as he did last year.”
Rochester is not yet finished assembling their roster, but they have more pieces in place than some of the teams we have covered so far in the series. Doherty added that while the club hasn’t signed many new players yet, they have added three rookies (defenders Joe Farrell and Jordan Becker, and Sean Reilly in the midfield) and they look to have multiple players they are looking at currently. They also have Jon Okafor and Navion Boyd in on trial at the moment, two former professionals who may yet become Rhinos.
COACHING STAFF
Current head coach Bob Lilley has quite a bit of experience. Twice a manager for teams that would eventually move on to the MLS–the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps–he is in his secont stint at the helm of the Rhinos. He first managed the club from 2010-2011, taking the team to first-place finishes in their division both seasons. He was away from the club for two seasons, but returned for the 2014 season and won the title last year.
According to Doherty, the presence of Lilley at the club has helped to keep things going smoothly despite the front office turmoil this offseason. Club President and CEO Pat Ercoli told him, “Having Lilley in place prevented the outside chaos from interfering with what a normal preseason is in Rochester.” Doherty also said that Lilley likes to wait to sign players until he knows he has the right fit–something we saw from Coach O’Connor last season. “Lilley told me on Friday, ‘I’d rather get it right than settle earlier.’ “
SUPPORTERS
 
The official supporters group of the Rhinos is the Oak Street Brigade. Hopefully we get the chance this season to talk as much smack to them as they got to do to us in the postseason last year. And boy, was there some smack talk going on. They replaced the previous supporters group, the Stampede. Quite original. Just like us, they let off smoke bombs when they score goals….which is about once a match. They also release streamers, which just seems like littering when you think about it. Especially if they aren’t cleaning up behind themselves.
PREDICTION
Just like with Louisville City, there are a lot of unknown variables with Rochester in regards to figuring out just how they may perform. Anytime you have a team with chemistry in the back that undergoes a large amount of turnover, it could take a bit of time for the unit to gel. Whereas our boys are trying to overcome losing the Burke/Fondy combination in attack, the Rhinos are having to replace both their goalkeeper and their wingbacks, which could lead to a breakdown of that stellar defense they employed last season. Which also means who knows, they might come out of their own end of the pitch once in a while! Attacking football is fun!!!
I would not be surprised one bit to see the Rhinos back near the top of the Eastern Conference this season. When you have a solid core of players returning for a coach who knows how to win, it doesn’t take much to continue to put results together. While I do not see them being as dominant as they were last season, I fully expect to see them back in the playoffs and the matchups between Rochester and LCFC should once again be important to how the USL season plays out.
 
Note: Special thanks to Brendan Doherty for some great insight and information on the Rhinos. Check out the USL Show podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and hit him up on Twitter @DohertySoccer