Rochester Rhinos has never beaten Orlando City in 8 previous meetings in USL Pro. The Rhinos opened its 2014 season on the road in Orlando, losing 3-1 to the City Lions on that night. Enterprising attacking play in the first half set the team up to hold onto a result when Orlando picked up its intensity later in the game.
New England Revolution loanee Alec Sundly started alongside Tyler Rosenlund and Lance Rozeboom in a 3-man central midfield contingent. Fellow Rev Luis Soffner started on the bench as neither Jossimar Sanchez nor Donnie Smith were in the matchday squad.
Rhinos' head coach Bob Lilley has settled on his first choice back four. Kyle Hoffer, a USL Pro veteran, is the leader in the back and Tony Walls has formed a solid partnership in the middle with him. Pat McMahon has settled in as a quality right back and Onua Obasi has transitioned from futsal forward to marauding left back. Behind this back line, John McCarthy may have edged out Soffer as the number one.
Prior to the season, Lilley repeated the sentiment that both goalkeepers would see playing time and have a chance to impress him. It's not as though Soffner has performed poorly, but McCarthy held a laudable stat going into Saturday's match. McCarthy had notched up three consecutive clean sheets in his three starts so far this season.
In the opening few minutes JC Banks almost found the breakthrough. Left back Obasi threaded a through ball that Banks got on the end of inside the area in the fourth minute. A heavy touch from Banks allowed Orlando's goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski to rush off his line to collect the ball.
Woszczynski made another important intervention in the ninth minute. Banks flicked a ball on to Rosenlund who powered a header into Dixon's path. Dixon was able to get a foot on a soft header from an Orlando defender back to his goalkeeper but could not significantly redirect the flight of the ball and Woszczynski calmly scooped up the ball.
Rochester continued to test Orlando's defense and goalkeeper with strong attacking play that often resulted in shots on goal. A low cross from the left side by Banks caused a moment of panic for the visiting back four as the ball bounced awkwardly near the top of the six-yard box.
Orlando's head coach Adrian Heath noticed that JC Banks was enjoying a bit too much freedom down the left wing and made a first half substitution. Banks was torching Orlando right back Bitielo Jean Jacques on nearly every attack which forced the City Lions to replace the Haitian defender with US youth international Tyler Turner.
Just as Orlando was beginning to build some possession near midfield, after the half hour mark, Rochester made its breakthrough.
Former Orlando player Johnny Mendoza drifted inside from his spot on the right wing to spread play wide left to Banks. Banks has always been dangerous from the channel looking inside and sent a quality cross into the area towards Rosenlund. The club captain nodded the ball just inside the far post as Orlando's Woszczynski was rooted to his line.
The assist was Banks' 16th in his career with the Rhinos, moving him to 7th all-time for the club. This may not seem impressive on its face but keep in mind that the club has been active since 1996 (as long as the Revs) and back in the day Rochester had MLS-quality guys playing for 4 or 5 consecutive years against notably less than MLS-quality teams.
Rochester's defense seemed encouraged by their teammates efforts on the other end of the field and went into tackles with added vigor towards the end of the first half. There is effective communication among the team's defenders and they appear to be establishing positive chemistry.
Before halftime, goalscorer Rosenlund picked up a leg injury and was forced to withdraw from proceedings. Mike Garzi came into the game to replace the captain, but the team definitely missed Rosenlund's presence during the second half.
I don't know what Adrian Heath told his team during the halftime break but I'm sure he wasn't in a cheerful mood. After the interval Orlando played with much more urgency and the introduction of regular starters into the mix certainly helped the visitors' cause. Orlando played Friday night in Pittsburgh before traveling to Rochester for Saturday's match. In order to prevent fatigue and reduce the risk of injuries, Heath decided to start the match with Yordany Alvarez, Kevin Molino, Darwin Ceren, and Dennis Chin on the bench.
Molino and Ceren almost immediately shifted the complexion of the game by asserting themselves in midfield. Orlando managed its first shot on goal in the 55th minute and its first corner in the 62nd; the Lions didn't let off the gas after that.
Orlando took a narrow corner kick that Hertzog was able to flick on just short of the near post. The ball fell to Luke Boden whose low shot was partially blocked by McCarthy. Brad Rusin was standing in front of the goal on the play but I don't think he got a touch on the ball. Instead, I think McCarthy simply couldn't get good contact on the ball and the shot trickled over the line before Mendoza tried to clear it.
After the equalizing goal, Orlando continued to pressure the Rhinos all over the field. Recent signing Levi Houapeu made his debut for the club when he entered the game with Colin Rolfe to replace Banks and Dixon up top. Houapeu's 11 minutes plus stoppage time in a team that attempting to hold onto a result at home was not a great opportunity to showcase his free-flowing attacking abilities, but that chance should arise in the coming weeks.
Another concern for Rochester, aside from Rosenlund's first half leg injury, is that Lance Rozeboom left the game in the 85th minute. While it did not appear to be a serious injury, anything that keeps the team's ball-winning engine off the field should worry Rhinos' fans. Alec Sundly has shown well playing in central midfield but he tends to drift around the field whereas Rozeboom plays more of a stay-at-home style of with lots of simple passes to mobile teammates.
John McCarthy conceded his first professional goal against Orlando after 332 minutes. Luis Soffner was by no means in the doghouse before Saturday night's game but don't be surprised to see the Revolution loanee start next week's match in Pittsburgh.
In the end, Rochester held on for a 1-1 draw against the best team in USL Pro. Saturday night's game marks only the second time that the team has ever earned a point from Orlando. While a team would ideally like to collect three points from every home game, a draw against the league leaders that extends an unbeaten streak to 6 games is a fair result for a cliche game of two halves.
The Rhinos' next league match is on Saturday, May 17 in Pittsburgh against the Riverhounds at 7:00PM. Before that, though, Rochester will host the Western Mass Pioneers (of the USL Premier Development League) in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night at 7:35PM from Sahlen's Stadium.