By CHARLIE CORR – firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
The defending champion Rochester Rhinos know they will have a target on their back this season coming off one of the best – if not the best – seasons in USL history. They conceded a record-low 15 goals during the regular season. They posted a club-best 19-game unbeaten streak. They became the second USL team to win both the regular season and claim the league championship title. With the new ownership of David and Wendy Dworkin, the club is approaching a new era among all facets of the organization. The one staple the Dworkins can be assured of is a tough-nosed product on the field as Bob Lilley’s side begins its quest to repeat.
Head Coach: Bob Lilley
Stadium: Rhinos Stadium
2015 results: 17-1-10 record; 1st in Eastern Conference
2015 postseason: 2-1 win vs. NYRB II in East Semifinals; 1-0 win vs. Louisville in East Final; 2-1 OT win vs. LA Galaxy II in USL Championship
Goalkeeper: With 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller heading to the Western Conference’s Orange County Blues FC, the Rhinos will have a new face regularly anchoring this club. Last season, Adam Grinwis made six starts and certainly was up to the task, posting a 3-0-3 record and a shutout while allowing only four goals. Any USL team would take those numbers stretched over the course of a full season’s worth of games.
Defense: The Rhinos’ defense was second to none last season, and much of the same cast is back for 2016. The back line is led by USL All-League First Teamer Grant Van De Casteele, a former member of Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids who has been a rock for Rochester since Day 1. He also added a pair of goals. Vassilios Apostolopoulos played in all but one match and Sean Totsch also logged 20 games and tallied a goal last season.
Midfield: Team captain and USL All-League First Team midfielder Tony Walls was suffice to say the heart and soul of last season’s Rhinos. He appeared in every match of the 2015 campaign while tallying four goals and two assists. Mike Garzi returns after logging more than 1,500 minutes in 23 matches. Marcos Ugarte started in nine of the 18 games he played last season and could see a greater role this year as this part of the field has undergone the most changes this offseason.
Forward: The Rhinos’ front line will have a key absence with the reliable Johnny Mendoza moving to Orlando City B. However, Rochester has retained a good striking corps from last season, including its leading goal scorers Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky, who tallied eight goals apiece. The multi-tasking Kenardo Forbes also returns, coming off a three-goal, five-assist campaign.
Strengths: Despite the absence of 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller, the team should once again tout one of the best defenses in the USL. The Rhinos preach team defense among every player on the pitch. They also were notorious last season for surrendering few shots on goal, which means the loss of Miller affects this club less so than other teams. Rochester’s midfield and back line no doubt will be challenged by the likes of Louisville City FC or the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, but the Rhinos tend to do their part in keeping such high-octane offenses in check.
Weaknesses: Rochester’s finishing quality left a little bit to be desired last season. The 40 regular-season goals put the club around the middle of the Eastern Conference field, but with that airtight defense, it was more than enough offense to make up the difference. Nevertheless, Lilley had recognized the finishing shortcomings at times last season, so this is certainly an area that the club is focused on improving in 2016.
Key number: 25 – Rochester’s goal differential was plus-25 during the 2015 regular season to lead the league.
Noteworthy matchups: Though much of last season was a one-team race, Louisville City FC maintained the No. 2 spot, and both teams met in the conference final. On June 18, they meet for the first time since Rochester’s 1-0 postseason victory against a strong City side. Also worth marking on the calendars is the Rhinos’ first home stand, a four-game stretch from April 23-May 14, which will be the club’s first opportunity to play on the newly surfaced Rhinos Stadium pitch. The home opener is April 23 against FC Montreal.
Coach’s view: “The corps that we do have coming back was, I think, very good from last year and now has that experience of winning the championship. Now the tough challenge is can we put in the work to hopefully get ourselves back in the conversation at playoff time.” – Bob Lilley
Current roster (updated: March 22, 2016):
Goalkeepers: Adam Grinwis
Defenders: Vassilios Apostolopoulos, Sean Totsch, Grant Van De Casteele
Midfielders: Mike Garzi, Marcos Ugarte, Tony Walls
Forwards: Steevan Dos Santos, Kenardo Forbes, Asani Samuels, Christian Volesky