First of all I'd like to thank Steve and the rest of The Bent Musket for inviting me on board.
When I started my freshman year at college, the orientation leaders had each of us tell three facts about ourselves; two of them true and one a lie. If I had to do the same today, my three facts would be: 1) I presented farm animals in shows when I was little 2) I love Phil Collins 3) I drink three cups of coffee a day
Now that you all know a little about me, I'd like to introduce you to the Rochester Rhinos. According to the official blurb at the bottom of all of the team's match reports and news releases:
The Rochester Rhinos, the most successful soccer club in the United States and Canada outside of Major League Soccer, were founded in 1996 and currently play in the USL PRO Division - the top tier of the United Soccer Leagues. The Rhinos have appeared in eight finals and won four championships including the 1999 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and three A-League Championships (1998, 2000, 2001). In 2013 the the New England Revolution became the official MLS affiliate of the Rochester Rhinos.
"The most successful soccer club... outside of Major League Soccer" may be kind, but the Rhinos are definitely in that conversation. Back in their heyday, Rochester boasted players that could have walked into most MLS squads. Since 2001's title the Rhinos have been competitive in their league but, through MLS expansion and the recent relative ascension of NASL, the level of that league has dropped.
Last year, my hometown team had a fairly young and very exciting squad who were dumped out unceremoniously in a playoff semifinal penalty shootout at home. The core of that team returns for 2013 and is joined by 4 promising players from a certain New England soccer club of which you might have heard.
The 4 loaned Revolution players each play a position the Rhinos struggled with in 2012. Other off-season acquisitions Matt Luzunaris, ex-Rev Blake Brettschneider, Lance Rozeboom, and Ross Labeaux will also shore up weaknesses at forward and central midfield, which were exposed during the last campaign. Considering the strength of these 8 additions, the understanding that the returning players share, and the chance for second-year head coach Jesse Myers to settle in, it's easy to see why few writers predict Rochester to finish outside of the top three for 2013.
Any success the Rhinos find this year - whether in the regular season, the playoffs, the U.S. Open Cup, or in the season opener in Florida on Saturday night - will be heavily dependent on the four loaned players. Trust me, I'm not just pandering to The Bent Musket's audience on this point. USL-Pro allows teams to use five substitutions per game, and most coaches take advantage of this rule as a way to deal with poor schedule congestion. None of you should worry about the loaned players struggling for playing time as each showed well during preseason and will feature in most matches.
Because the Rhinos were the definition of wasteful in front of goal last season, Myers and his staff have added three forwards to join speedster Kendell McFayden and deep-lying striker Tam McManus. Matt Horth probably won't start the season as first choice forward to partner McManus up top due to Luzunaris's consistent production for Orlando City last year. However if 2012 is a model, Horth could be the first choice to replace McManus after 60 minutes.
The most talented player on the Rhinos over the last two seasons (and my personal favorite player) has been winger J.C. Banks. Banks saw his 2012 season end early after he landed awkwardly on his knee during an aerial challenge and tore his ACL. Last year, Banks and left-footed wide midfielder Danny Earls often swapped flanks to offer different attacking options for the team. Gabe Latigue will attempt to fill these rather large cleats for the Rhinos, but I'm confident he will show well in this league.
I remember Bilal Duckett from his 270 minutes and 1 assist over 3 games against the Rhinos for the Harrisburg City Islanders last season. Duckett's size makes him a capable back-up to Troy Roberts or Greek veteran George Kyriazis in central defense. However his speed, skill on the ball, and ability to read the play allow Duckett to excel at his natural position of right back. Returning Argentine right back Lucas Fernandez improved vastly over the course of last season, but is still prone to inconsistencies while both defending and supporting the attack.
Tyler Polak became the youngest player on the Rhinos' roster when he was signed on loan. Despite his age he possesses a strong pedigree having played with youth national teams and he displayed a strong understanding with fellow left back/midfielder Chris Estridge in preseason. If any of you will be following the Rhinos match at VSI Tampa Bay on Saturday on http://www.uslnation.com you may have difficulty differentiating between the two similar looking players who will occupy the same positions on the field. Given the lack of depth at left back, Polak should only be competing with Estridge for minutes, though they can both fill in at midfield.
I'm looking forward to covering this USL-Pro season, and to providing The Bent Musket with a closer look at the Revs loanees than you'll find anywhere else. If you want to see other content about USL-Pro delivered in my sparkling writing voice then please pay a visit to Doherty Soccer, and you can also check out my columns on the Mexican national team and Liga MX at Soccer Newsday. That should be the first and last time I shamelessly promote myself here.
I will be writing periodic analytic articles about the development of the Revs players and match reports for each of the Rhinos' games this year, including their season opener at 7:30 PM in Florida against VSI Tampa Bay FC on Saturday April 13th.
Thanks for having me, TBM faithful, and I hope you enjoy my work.