With postseason play little more than a hope after a 4-game losing skid to start August, Rochester turned on the jets in the last two games to qualify for the playoffs. Not only has the team made the playoffs (which it had for 17 straight seasons before 2013's disaster) but wins last week in Harrisburg and tonight against Wilmington shot the team into sixth place. The victory tonight means the Rhinos avoid Orlando City in the first round of the postseason and instead will face LA Galaxy II on Saturday, September 13.
Rochester created some early chances through high pressure from the team's front three. Bob Lilley opted to line his team up in a 4-3-3 with JC Banks, Alex Dixon, and Minh Vu all providing speedy and skillful outlets as well as closing down space on Wilmington's back-line.
Onua Obasi also played with a lot of freedom up the left wing in the first half. Obasi repeatedly beat his defender with silky footwork but his service into the box failed to find a teammate. In the 32nd minute Vu created space for Obasi by drawing two defenders and Obasi cut inside to play a one-two with Tyler Rosenlund. Obasi did well to fend off a challenge but his off-balance shot was blocked by central defender Brian Ackley.
The best chance of the first half came for centerback Babacar Diallo, who scored his first goal for the Rhinos last week. Rosenlund played a pass out wide on the left for Banks. Banks beat his first defender and sent in a delectable ball that flew through the no-man's-land between goalkeeper Brad Stuver and Wilmington's defense. With the whole goal to aim at, Diallo stabbed the ball over the net from inside 6 yards in the 36th minute.
On corner kick duty, JC Banks sent a ball into the box for the Rhinos just after halftime. Centerback Kyle Hoffer rose up at the near post to flick the ball towards goal. Somehow the ball eluded a mass of bodies in the goalmouth and Hoffer's glancing header scored in the 47th minute.
Head coach Bob Lilley had a lot of praise for the work of both Hoffer and Diallo recently. "It's nice that they've scored. They've worked hard and they've been a big part of it all year. I'm impressed with their hunger. Right now we've got a lot of confidence every time we're lining up on restarts because we're attacking everything," Lilley said. "Those guys have stepped up there and it gives us confidence as a team."
For the first 20-25 minutes of the second half, Rochester's players were executing with an added zest. The Rhinos seemed to win a majority of 50/50 balls and even defensive stalwart Pat McMahon, right back, was pulling out tricks moving up the sideline. This positive play was rewarded again in the 69th minute.
Minh Vu carried the ball up the channel on the right side before sending in a long cross towards Rosenlund. The club captain did well to trap the ball before unleashing a volley back towards the far post. Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had done well to move with Vu's cross but Rosenlund had enough time and space to find the upper ninety with his shot.
Once the Rhinos went up 2-0, Bob Lilley used all 5 substitutions to give offensive players a break and to shore up the defense. Donnie Smith entered the game for Rochester in the 70th minute and played as a left back. Smith told the Bent Musket that he felt comfortable filling in at left back for the Rhinos. "I've been training almost every day at left back in Foxborough and I actually thought I was gonna play either left or right mid today but with the yellow card to Onua coach didn't really want to risk him getting a red card so he pushed me into left back and I was more than happy."
Smith was clearly feeling up for this game today as fashioned a nutmeg on a Wilmington defender and even ran down a 60 yard ball into the left channel. "I didn't want to get forward too much from left back," Smith admitted to TBM, "but obviously that's one of my strengths, bombing forward from the back. I wanted to do it at least once or twice."
"LA is good; that's definitely one of the teams that impressed me the most," JC Banks told TBM after Sunday's game. "They've got some really good players but we'll be okay as long as we go in and stick to the gameplan; if we defend well and, like that game earlier in the season, we take advantage of the chances that we get. We didn't have many chances then but won 2-1. When you put them away you can beat anybody."
Head coach Bob Lilley echoed that sentiment in his postgame thoughts looking ahead to LA Galaxy II. "We'll have to defend well but we'll also have to have enough of the ball so weren't not under siege," Lilley said. "We'll have to take our chances and show them that we can go forward. They've also given up more goals than most of the other top teams. They're put you under the gun but you're also going to get your chances."
"We beat them 2-1 earlier in the year over there and they put us under a lot of pressure. We played well on the day but they certainly carried most of the play. We'll have to raise our level but we're a better team now than then. I expect it to be a tough match-up," Lilley told TBM.