Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley has never coached in MLS but has an impressive cache of silverware to his name, including being twice named to A-League Coach of the Year. His opposite on Friday night is Curt Onalfo, who replaced Rochester native Brian Bliss as Kansas City head coach after the 2006 MLS season. Onalfo's tenure with KC was mixed but his 2010 role with D.C. United, where he has previously backed up Bruce Arena was abysmal.
Onalfo took the reins of LA Galaxy II for its pioneering debut season in 2014. Lilley returned to Rochester that same season for his second stint; he had left the team for personal reasons after coaching the Rhinos from 2009 through 2011. During the intervening two seasons, Rochester struggled under former Richmond Kickers assistant Jesse Myers.
The Rhinos suffered the worst home defeat in history to the Charleston Battery in 2012, a 4-0 loss. To add insult to injury, Rochester missed the playoffs the following season for the only time in its then-18-year history. Lilley returned to the club and righted the ship in 2013 but fell to LA Galaxy II on the road in the playoffs.
Ahead of that match Lilley told me that he wasn't worried about the Galaxy dropping ringers down from the MLS squad. In fact the two players that buried the Rhinos inside the StubHub Center were on MLS contracts but spent a majority of the season in USL. Chandler Hoffman and Charlie Rugg scored the goals and prodigious homegrown winger Bradford Jamieson IV was involved in creating both.
While J.C. Banks scored once for the Rhinos, the team could not score in the second half and fell on the west coast. This time around Rochester has been remarkably strong at home all season and Los Dos have been a carousel of contributing players in 2015.
Rochester has used 21 field players and 3 goalkeepers during the 2015 USL campaign. In the same parameters, LA Galaxy II has used 37 field players and 4 goalkeepers. Bob Lilley has forged a tremendously tight-knit squad despite rotating his available players. Talking to Rochester players throughout the season, Lilley has carefully communicated what he expects from players in every role in various prepared tactical lineups so anyone can step into an unfamiliar position but still know what to do.
Even though a dozen LA players have more than 1000 playing minutes, the team lacks the same type of cohesive bonds that Rochester has developed. That is not to say that the Galaxy doesn't have effective weapons. Ariel Lassiter and Jack McBean have more goals in the regular season (17) than Steeven dos Santos and Christian Volesky (16), Rochester's top forwards. Many of the team's wingers enjoy rushing the opponents penalty area, just as is the case in LA's MLS side.
It would be naive to claim a Rochester victory will be easy. Dos Santos, who scored twice in Rochester's playoff run, will serve a suspension during the final for his dismissal last weekend against Louisville. Volesky has failed fitness tests after suffering a concussion in training during the playoffs. Second year forward Colin Rolfe came out of the game after entering as a second half substitute against Louisville.
Rookie forward Asani Samuels could see an unlikely start up top while Alex Dixon and Kenardo Forbes man the flanks. Workhorse midfield Johnny Mendoza may fill the role behind the lone forward while interchanging with the adventurous wingers. Behind Mendoza, captain Tony Walls will partner Mike Garzi in the center of the field to break up any attacking passing sequences the visitors try to create.
Rochester's back five, the defense and goalkeeper, will be formidably for even Los Dos. Pat McMahon, Grant van de Casteele, Vasili Apostolopoulos, and Onua Obasi have been organized all season. Goalkeeper Brandon Miller broke the USL record for clean sheets in a single season. Together, the Rochester defense conceded just 15 goals across 28 regular season games. The team has since added two more clean sheets in the USL playoffs.
Several members of the Rochester defense have caught the eye of the league communications team and other observers, including former USMNT star John Harkes. Harkes, who will coach FC Cincinnati next year, will be in Rochester to call Friday's game for the ESPN broadcast. He spoke to American soccer blog Scratching the Pitch and mentioned van de Casteele, Apostolopoulos, and McMahon by name.
While this contest may be cast as a match between youth and experience, this is the youngest Rochester team in years. This will only be set as a contest between a staunch defense and a flowing offense but 2015's Rochester team has scored more than any Rhinos team since 2005.
Rochester is undefeated at home in all competitions this year but LA has been a strong road team. The Rhinos went 12-0-2 at Sahlen's Stadium while Los Dos won 8 games on their travels. Since the regular season ended, Rochester has added to shutout victories at home while LA has gone on the road three times and won each game.
The two team contesting the 2015 USL Final are very close and every player will need to be focused in order to come out on top. Because of the venue and my lifelong support of the team, I have to pull for the Rochester Rhinos to win 2-1 in extra time over LA Galaxy II.
The game kicks off at 7:30PM on both ESPN3 and YouTube. The Bent Musket will be covering the match in-depth.