Monday, October 19, 2015
After playing just 188 minutes previously in the USL regular season and playoffs, you might have struggled to find a more unlikely hero for the Rochester Rhinos in the 2015 USL Championship than forward Asani Samuels.
Even three days after his two goals led the Rhinos to a 2-1 overtime victory against the LA Galaxy II, the manner in which his first playoff goal arrived was still surprising to the 23-year-old Jamaican.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Samuels said by phone. “The opportunity kind of presented itself, and I took it with open arms. I was thinking that we got that goal, there was no way we were going to lose because we had the momentum, the crowd is behind us, we had only conceded multiple goals in two games against the Charlotte Independence and the Red Bulls II, so I was like, all right, the chance of winning this game have significantly improved.”
“Significantly improved” might be an understatement. After being less than two minutes from defeat, the Rhinos had new life, and they carried their momentum into the overtime period. Then, in remarkably similar circumstances, Samuels wrote himself into the club’s history books as his flicked header from Kenardo Forbes’ delivery earned the club its first title since 2001.
“To score the second goal, the crowd is going wild, my heart is racing, my teammates are running toward me, it’s a great feeling, man,” he said. “There’s no other feeling like that in the world. It feels like you just climbed the mountain, and you’ve worked so hard to reach the top of the mountain, and you’re finally at the top. It’s the best feeling on the planet.”
The climb to the top of that mountain began just over 70 miles away from Sahlen’s Stadium, at Canisius College, where Samuels was last year an All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference First Team selection for the Golden Griffins, and was an NSCAA All-Northeast Region Second Team selection.
While MLS looked elsewhere, though, Samuels took his chance to join up with the Rhinos in preseason, and earned a place on the team. Throughout the process he became accustomed to his new coach’s demands for accountability on the field, whichever side was in possession.
“For Bob Lilley, it’s more that everyone has to defend, you know?” Samuels said. “When your team doesn’t have the ball, you have to get back in the areas, you have to cover ground. That’s your job. Everybody on the field is the same, everybody on the field attacks. You don’t win championships when four people or five people defend, and five people attack. You win championships when everybody does as a unit. When we have the ball, we attack together, we move the ball from the defense, to the midfield, to the attack. When we don’t have the ball, we stay connected and drop into space. It’s a team effort.”
As with his teammates, Samuels bought into Lilley’s philosophy, and worked to raise his fitness and awareness, which in turn would allow him to become a true two-way player. His first breakthrough came in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, when as an overtime substitute he scored twice to lead the Rhinos to a comeback victory against the Harrisburg City Islanders in the third round.
“Your first professional goal as a striker, your first goal for a team is one of the most important goals, because it sets the pace for the rest of the season,” Samuels said. “It lets you know that you can accomplish a lot if you work hard, so getting that goal meant a lot to me, and it helped with my confidence for the rest of the season. I was like, ‘all right, I’ve got two goals now.’ It takes the monkey off the back. You don’t have to worry about scoring your first goal anymore, because you already have that under your belt, and now you can worry about getting a better performance.”
Still, with Steevan dos Santos and Christian Volesky leading the way for much of the season, the chance to put in those improved performances still were few and far between. All of Samuels’ 11 appearances in the regular season came off the bench, as he looked for a chance to shine.
With dos Santos suspended, and Volesky injured for Friday’s championship game, when the time came, Samuels rose to the challenge.
“[Lilley] said to me, ‘Asani, just go out there and work hard,’” said Samuels. “I went out there, I tried to challenge for every ball, I tried to pressure, and then Jonny Mendoza put the ball in the box off a corner and I got the equalizer in stoppage time.”
After announcing himself to a wider audience, Samuels is now looking forward to taking some time for himself before he gets back in gear for the 2016 season. As they were this season, increased situational awareness and fitness are on the slate for this offseason, as he prepares for the next chapter in his professional career.
Whatever happens next, though, Samuels will always carry the memory of the Rhinos’ championship with him.“There’s no one that can take that away from us,” Samuels said. “We’re the 2015 USL champions, the boys are happy. It’s a great feeling, man, to be champions. There can only be one 2015 USL champion, and that’s us, and I think we totally deserved it because we work hard in preseason, we work hard in the season, we only lost one game, and we only conceded 16 goals all season. I’m proud of the boys.”