Though the Rhinos season was 18 weeks long, it was effectively over long before August but felt like it would never end.
In many ways the 2013 USL-Pro season was one to forgot for fans of the Rochester Rhinos. For the first time in the club's 18 year history the Rhinos failed to make the postseason. The traditional giant-killer was dismantled by the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup Third Round. Matt Luzunaris who was for all intents and purposes Rochester's marquee signing suffered a gruesome leg break early in the season. To add insult to injury, USL-Pro rival Orlando City is now everyone's darling to join MLS ten years on from Rochester own failed courtship.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom around Sahlen's Stadium. Prior to preseason training, the club announced an affiliation with the Revolution in which the MLS side would provide 4 players on loan to the Rhinos. Fan favorite Danny Earls had a tremendous season for the team which earned him Second Team All League honors. German goalkeeper Kristian Nicht escaped the season relatively unscathed despite the team giving up 39 goals. 2012 Team MVP J.C. Banks recovered from ACL surgery in the middle of the season to give the team a morale boost when it would have been easier for the players to simply give up.
Skeptics and perennial critics of the Rhinos organization have argued that the affiliation deal was merely a cost-cutting measure as the Revs still paid the contracts of forward Matt Horth, right back Bilal Duckett, left back Tyler Polak, and winger Gabe Latigue. This may be true but as this cooperation between the two leagues deepens over the next two years, the Rhinos can be proud to have been at the forefront of that deal. USL-Pro rules allow 5 substitutions per game and schedule congestion can often mean coaches have to frequently rotate players but Horth, Duckett, and Latigue all worked themselves into regular consideration for Rochester's starting lineup.
Danny Earls clocked the third most minutes for the team this season behind only Tyler Rosenlund and Lance Rozeboom. The Dublin native was also third on the team with 7 points from 3 goals and an assist; considering Earls operated from a left back position that is personally impressive. Earls was responsible for serving in corner kicks all season and was always a positive force on the field. Since returning to the Rhinos from the Colorado Rapids, Earls has played on both wings and central midfield in addition to his natural left back position and he may have even deputized in central defense once of twice late in games over the two seasons.
Kristian Nicht is a really fun guy off the field. He's always been excited to see fans outside of Sahlen's Stadium and is a talkative guy when the team has gotten positive results. He's a different kind of talkative when the opposite is true. Nicht joined the team before the 2012 season and my best memories of the 6'4" goalkeeper are from a match at home against Pittsburgh Riverhounds game that I said the following about:
Nicht was as animated as I have ever seen a professional athlete. He was screaming the entire game; at ball-boys, at linesmen, at the center ref, at his teammates, at the crowd at end of the game… At one point in the game, Nicht yelled the greatest thing I have ever heard hurled at a referee. When a Rhinos player was clearly fouled but the official decided not to blow his whistle Nicht yelled from half the field away in his thick accent, “Ref, what! Do you have eyes?!“
When not terrifying small children with his accent Nicht put up solid numbers and despite glimpses of a sophomore slump in 2013 (more down to the team performances than him personally), he could easily make the roster of any MLS team tomorrow.
J.C. Banks was the man in 2012. He almost singlehandedly won game for the Rhinos that the team had no business winning. Near the tail-end of that season Banks suffered a torn ACL and missed out on scheduled preseason training sessions with MLS side Columbus Crew. Battling back not only to full fitness but from the mental setback of an injury derailing his breakout season, Banks rejoined the squad part-way through the 2013 season. While he wasn't able to turn the tide of the Rhinos' season, Banks brought a flair to the team that had sorely been missing in his absence.
Sadly towards the end of the campaign, Revolution loanee and often overlooked winger Gabe Latigue injured his knee during training on the worn-out turf surface at Sahlen's Stadium. Later scans confirmed significant damage to the ligaments and cartilage in his right knee. At the time back in July I wrote:
During a training session on Monday [July 15], Gabe damaged the MCL, ACL, and meniscus in his right knee. With such a serious injury to his knee, he's out for the remainder of the Rhinos' season right at the time when his performances were beginning to bolster the team. Just days after his spirited performance against Richmond, which earned him a place in USL-Pro's Team of the Week, Latigue twisted his knee awkwardly during training.
It is truly a tough break for the young player who was starting to establish himself with the team.
Regardless of the future of the affiliation between the two clubs, I wish Gabe a speedy and healthy recovering and hope to see him back out on the field sooner rather than later. I first saw the Elon University product during a preseason game at Sahlen's and his ability to slow down play and find his teammates in space was refreshing for USL-Pro, which is usually more prone to a kick and run style.
After what could only loosely be described as a rebuilding year, the Rhinos announced this week that former head coach Bob Lilley would be returning to the helm. Lilley won Coach of the Year for his work with the Rhinos in 2010 and his combined record over the '10 and '11 seasons was 28-16-10, much better than this year's paltry 6-10-10.
Whether Lilley can bring his Midas touch back to the city of Rochester and the future of key players on the team remain to be seen, but the organization as a whole simply must do better in 2014.