Coming off a rather listless 1-0 win over amateur NPSL side Greater Binghamton Futbol Club (GBFC) Thunder last Wednesday and a nervy scoreless draw at Toronto FC II on the weekend, Rochester traveled down to Central Pennsylvania to face the Harrisburg City Islanders in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup.
The Rochester Rhinos organization is closely intertwined with the growing lore of the Open Cup as a national soccer gem. Rochester remains the only non-MLS side to lift the trophy after the inception of MLS, beating four MLS teams to win the competition in 1999. The Rhinos also have an impeccable 14-0-0 record against amateur sides in the Open Cup and puts the fear into MLS coaches as much as any lower division team can.
You can read a recap of Rochester's Second Round victory over GBFC Thunder over at TheCup.us.
Harrisburg made the financial decision not to stream its cup match against Rochester but Rhinos' Head Coach Bob Lilley graciously filled me in on the details of the match. "In the first half I thought we had more of the ball but neither team was particularly dangerous," Lilley told me on Thursday.
Speaking of dangerous, the match's referee saw the eager and energetic hustle of Steevan Humberto Fortes "Duba" dos Santos as just that. Duba was booked in just the 14th minute. Despite the caution, Duba continued to throw his considerable size into his challenges and was warned twice by the referee for his physicality. The match official's patience wore thin in the 38th minute when he showed a yellow card card and subsequent red card to Duba.
Bob Lilley knew that the his team faced an uphill challenge and set about at halftime to motivate his players, now playing a man down for the rest of regulation and any potential extra time. "I told the players 'We're here to win the game' at halftime," Lilley said. Rochester controlled the play and created more chances in the second half despite only having 10 players.
Rochester's coaching staff rolled the dice by introducing forwards Christian Volesky, the team's leading scorer in the USL, and Asani Samuels before the end of regulation. Despite these offensive changes, Harrisburg struck first in the 107th minute. Game-day loanee from the Philadelphia Union, Eric Bird took a shot from 25 yards out that Brandon Miller blocked but didn't catch. Brett Jankouskas followed up on the rebound for the home side and easily finished past Miller to take the lead.
"It was nice to see no one drop their heads," Lilley recalled, proud of his team's response to conceding the game's first goal. Lilley referred multiple times to his midfielders having to fill more than one role with the team playing down a man. Key in this was Tony Walls operating at time as a playmaker, a box-to-box midfielder, a target forward, and a right winger. In this last role, Walls served the ball from which Rochester would equalize.
Almost immediately after Harrisburg scored, Walls sent a cross into the box from the right channel. While Volesky occupied the City Islander defense, Samuels flicked the ball onto the far post towards Forbes. Forbes was able to control the ball, calmly cut centrally on his defender, and coolly slot his shot into side netting in the 108th minute.
Not long after knotting the game, Rochester had a corner kick that appeared to overshoot its mark. However, Walls was able to knock the ball back across the face of goal and into the mix in front of goalkeeper Kyle Renfro. Samuels pounced on the loose ball and took a hard, low shot through traffic from eight yards out. The rookie forward gave Rochester the lead in the 115th minute.
As Harrisburg threw players forward in the dying stages of the game, left back Onua Obasi won the ball and quickly played upfield to Kenardo Forbes. The technical attacker took a touch forward before finding the run of Asani Samuels centrally from the right flank. Samuels broke through what was left of Harrisburg's defense and bore down on Renfro. The goalkeeper got a touch on the shot but couldn't prevent Samuels from scoring his second and securing an extra time victory for the visitors in the 120th minute.
Lilley humbly rebuffed any notion that his coaching was solely responsible for the comeback win. "The players deserve a lot of credit, a lot of guys were out [injured] and others were playing out of position. When we went down to 10 men, tactics were changing quickly but the guys responded and showed a lot of hard work."
The victory over Harrisburg earned Rochester a June 16 match in PPL Park against the Philadelphia Union. The Rhinos previously met the Union in 2012 but lost that game 3-0. Lilley mentioned that likely Philadelphia starter for that match John McCarthy attended the Harrisburg match on Wednesday night. McCarthy talked to his former teammates and had a friendly chat with his former coach.
Talking to me on Thursday afternoon, Lilley was very proud of the effort and impact Asani Samuels had on the match, agreeing that he was the spark in extra time. "Asani was huge for us," Lilley beamed, "he has that ability." Samuels just recently met up with the team full-time after finishing his degree at Canisius College, "We have to use him off the bench because he just joined us."
"With Harrisburg at home and a man up, there was a lot of space for Asani to play. I didn't expect him to score two goals and grab an assist but it was a big moment for him." Looking ahead to the team's USL match on Saturday against FC Montreal, Lilley was cautiously optimistic about Samuels's opportunity to replicate his form in the league. "He gives us another weapon up top and he's working hard to get fitness."
Rochester next faces FC Montreal on Saturday night at Sahlen's Stadium. Lilley and the Rhinos are well aware that the young Montreal team is getting better with every match and they won't underestimate their visitors. "They're coming in fresh and ready to play," Lilley said, "They'll be rest and we'll need to find some energy."
Referring to a midfield injury crisis at the club right now, coach Lilley said it'll be tough to pick a starting 11 for Saturday. "We'll not have 11 healthy bodies on the field," he said, but the team is confident and wants to finish on a high note before a 13-day break in the schedule.
Rochester kicks off at home against FC Montreal at 7:05PM on Saturday and will travel to PPL Park on June 16 for the Fourth Round of the U.S. Open Cup.