Rochester Rhinos' players were beaming after the season finale win and the team is quietly confident going into the weekend's playoff match against LA Galaxy II. Coaches and players rejected the term "underdog" and feel like they can turn a few heads with a result in the 2014 USL Pro quarterfinals.
Speaking to the Bent Musket after Rochester's victory over Wilmington on Sunday, goalkeeper John McCarthy raved about his first year as a professional soccer player, "Oh, it was fun! It was great. I can't complain at all. Going to the playoffs is a goal you want to have right at the start of the season. As long we did that I'm happy and now we're here. We've gotta take it step-by-step now."
McCarthy recalled the team's June victory over LA Galaxy II. "We went out there before and they kinda handed it to us [in the run of play]. They can knock it around and they're a very good team but we did what we had to do and got a result out there. It finished 2-1 because we took our chances."
When asked which was more important, his goalkeeper of the year award from USL Pro or the team making the playoffs, McCarthy had a humble answer, "The team making the playoffs, without a doubt. As long as we're winning and make the playoffs, I can't complain," he said. "It's a team effort, it's not about the individuals on the team."
Donnie Smith told the Bent Musket on Sunday about his current loan deal with the Rhinos. "I was told by [Revolution goalkeeper coach] Remi Roy up in Foxborough that I was gonna stay here for the playoffs, so I'm here through the whole thing."
Smith played as a left back in the second half of Rochester's win on Sunday but still managed to get forward on the wing. During his previous loan spells with the Rhinos, Smith played well from midfield and was a constant threat sending service into the box. Because the team has developed better tactical awareness moving forward over the season, Smith's crosses will find more bodies in the box.
JC Banks credited the team's late season surge up to 6th in the playoffs with some mental concentration. "We've just been focusing that much more, and being a lot cleaner on the ball. Throughout the whole season we've been getting chances, but we just weren't clean with the finishing and getting numbers in the box. We definitely weren't getting enough numbers in the box but now we're starting to and we've been getting some more goals."
Banks told the Bent Musket that the win on Sunday was "good for confidence as a team and we got another shutout today which we hadn't got in a while and is bigger I think going into the playoffs because it's gonna be close no matter who you play. So now we've gotta keep it going and build on this momentum. Now is the time to peak."
Bob Lilley is similarly confident in his team's ability to compete with anyone in USL Pro. The Rhinos split the season series with Orlando (1-1-1) and Richmond (0-0-2) and beat LA Galaxy II in one previous meeting. "Sometimes in the playoffs, games can turn on one or two plays. [Sunday's game vs Wilmington] was a pretty even game and we get that corner kick goal early in the second half and that probably was the difference today."
The Bent Musket spoke with Defensive Player of the Year Tony Walls and Offensive Player of the Year JC Banks after training on Wednesday.
When asked if the team was worried about what attacking options LA Galaxy II has or who they might pull down from MLS for this game, Tony had a simple answer: "No." JC elaborated, "It just comes down to us having a performance no matter who's on the field. We know guys they have and guys that they've used, but no matter who they put on the field we gotta execute our gameplan."
Walls continued, "I don't think we're nervous and the fact that we went to LA already and beat them at the StubHub Center helps. And obviously it's not going to be easy, they're a good team, but we beat Orlando and we beat LA already. If we do what we need to do and take care of business individually and collectively I think there's no reason to be nervous."
2012 and 2014 Rhinos MVP, Banks added, "All the players they have are pretty good but I think they're vulnerable at the same time. I know they've given up a lot of goals. So long as we defend well and take care of our chances, we'll be fine."