Rochester can leapfrog Harrisburg and end the night fifth place with a win. To achieve that, however, Rochester will need to come out with a positive display in the first half.
That is precisely what the Rhinos did, taking the lead in the 8th minute, but the team somehow still managed to cough up points at home.
The first 20 minutes at Sahlen's Stadium displayed the most progressive, attacking soccer that Rochester has played in any first half this season. In just the opening 8 minutes Tony Walls put a header off the bar on a corner kick, JC Banks had a goal called back for offside, and Walls dispatched a beautiful free kick from 25 yards out.
Walls did brilliantly to get his ball up over the six-man wall and back down under the crossbar to give Rochester the lead in the 8th minute.
After going ahead, the game got more even as Harrisburg ventured forward with concentrated sequences of possession. The game took a wild turn in the 33rd minute when Alex Dixon was fouled by Harrisburg goalkeeper Nick Noble outside the 18-yard box. Johnny Mendoza played a quick pass up the center that Banks cleverly flicked in between the central defenders for Dixon to run onto. Dixon ran at pace towards the onrushing Noble before cutting to his right. Unable to reach the ball, Noble threw his body into Dixon in a clear red card offense.
Though Noble's legs were still inside the area, his shoulder (which made contact with Dixon) was leaning outside over the line. The referee sent off Noble and awarded Rochester a free kick on the edge of the box. Tony Walls stepped up to try his luck again but backup goalkeeper David Flynn made the punch-save.
Immediately after going down a man, Harrisburg switched to a more direct style. Instead of trying to knock the ball around, head coach Bill Becher instructed his midfielders to launch balls over the top for Mozambican forward Clesio Bauque. Rochester's centerback pairing of Kyle Hoffer and Babacar Diallo had no answer for the sheer pace of Bauque and the 19 year old forward on loan from Benfica's reserve team punished the home side.
Harrisburg midfielder Yann Ekra played a long ball from half field that got caught in the wind before dropping in Rochester's box. Hoffer backup off the falling ball as goalkeeper John McCarthy called for the ball before misjudging its flight. With McCarthy well off his line, Bauque took the ball out of the air to his left and buried a shot in the Rhinos' net in the 37th minute.
To say Rochester was shell-shocked would not compare to what happened just five minutes later. Ekra received a ball from his defender at half field before driving forward and slipping a ball in for Bauque who had lost both Hoffer and Diallo. McCarthy saw his defenders beat and rushed off his line but Bauque artfully drilled his shot to the far post to give the visitors the 2-1 lead in the 42nd minute despite playing a man down.
The City Islanders came out of the halftime break with a chip on their shoulder. They had the better of the early second half chances but Rochester slowly built as their opponents began to tire.
Alex Dixon received a pass from Mendoza in the right side of Harrisburg's penalty area and hit a low cross into the middle. The ball took a deflection around the near post and popped up for Banks to put a header on frame. Harrisburg defender Richie Marquez saw the ball strike his arm from a matter of feet but the referee didn't hesitate to point to the spot.
JC Banks coolly slotted home his penalty to level the match in the 54th minute but the team couldn't muster the go-ahead goal. Despite playing 57 minutes of regulation with a man advantage, the Rhinos couldn't score a third goal. The team created enough chances (including another Walls header off the crossbar in the 55th, a goalmouth scramble initiated by right back Pat McMahon that almost caused an own goal, and a loose ball bouncing 12 yards out from goal that Flynn beat Banks to) but didn't have the composure or nerve to finish.
"We didn't test [Flynn] enough, I don't think we forced him to make enough saves," Banks told me after the game. "We created enough chances, we've just got to put them away. We've gotta put them in the back of the net."
When asked how this result affects the team's chances of making playoffs, Banks said "It's pretty much the playoffs for us now and it clearly wasn't good enough from us tonight. We're still in a decent position where we can get in if we take care of our business."
After the match ended, Walls told me that the team was fired up to start tonight. "We had to come out with the right energy and intensity," he said. "It's a big game and I think the whole year we've shown that we rise to the occasion. Unfortunately I wish we were a little bit more consistent with our level but we're not going to back down from a challenge when our backs are against the wall."
When I asked each of them about the prospect of facing the same team without their starting goalkeeper next week down in Pennsylvania, Walls and Banks had differing answers. Banks was, as always, optimistic about Rochester's chances. "We know what they're about now and we've just gotta clean up a few things. We've just gotta make sure we limit the chances that we give them."
Walls was notably more assertive in his response. "I think once we sort out some things in the run of play and on the field, we'll be all right," Walls told me. "We've shown we can beat anybody in the league so it's just a matter of us and what we do, it's not about their personnel."
Rochester travels to Harrisburg to face off against the City Islanders against next Saturday, August 30 at 7:00PM. The Rhinos are clinging to a playoff spot and could be in a 4-way tie for 6th place at the end of the weekend if OKC Energy FC and Wilmington Hammerheads FC win their games.