Having already won the USL regular season, Saturday night's match was all about staying fit and maintaining form for the Rochester Rhinos. The Red Bulls had playoff seeding on the line and much of the game felt like a playoff contest.
Former Rochester Rhinos forward John Wolyniec led his young Red Bulls squad out onto the field for the second time this season. In their previous meetings, the teams played to a scoreless draw in Harrison, NJ, in March and the Rhinos won 2-0 at Sahlen's Stadium on April 26. Alex Dixon and Johnny Mendoza scored for the Rhinos in that match.
The opening ten minutes of the match was the Colin Rolfe show at Sahlen's Stadium on Saturday night. The second-year forward has played more of a support role in the 2015 season but was on fire in front of goal against the Red Bulls.
In just the second minute of the game, left winger Timi Mulgrew chipped a pass into the center towards forward Christian Volesky. Volesky nodded the ball into the path of his strike partner Colin Rolfe. NYRB left back Colin Heffron stooped down to attempt a header but Rolfe ran through the ball, taking it out of the air with a waist-high boot. As the ball bounced up perfectly over the paint at the top of the 18-yard box, Colin Rolfe blasted his shot just inside the post and out of the reach of a diving Rafael Diaz.
The third minute goal, which started with Rolfe's pass to Mulgrew, gave Rochester a deserving lead early in the game. The night got worse for the young visitors before it would get better.
Recently named Offensive Player of the Year (an award voted on by his teammates), Kenardo Forbes, took a corner kick in the ninth minute. While being held by Mike Da Fonte, Volesky managed to scorpion-kick the ball over to Rolfe. With his back to goal, Rolfe turned on Marius Obekop and roofed his shot from seven yards out. Rolfe's second goal doubled the team's lead within 10 minutes.
"We started well but we relaxed after going up 2-0," Rochester head coach Bob Lilley told media after the game. "I would have liked to see us go into halftime with a 2-0 lead. I think we lost our focus a bit and when they got the goal the game was wide open."
A poor lapse of communication by Rochester allowed Chris Tsonis to pick up a loose ball in the attacking third and drop a pass back to Devon Williams. "Speedy" Williams did well to pick out Marius Obekop in a pocket of space between the Rhinos central defenders. Obekop broke through and easily rounded Brandon Miller before dispatching his shot into the empty net to pull a goal back for the visitors in the 35th minute.
The second half was a much more even game with a majority of play stuck in the midfield. Contributing to the playoff feel of the match, players on both teams were physical and chippy the whole game. This physicality boiled over for the Rhinos in the 60th minute when Mike Garzi was shown a second yellow card for an off-the-ball incident before a New York free kick.
"Obviously Mike Garzi is a competitive guy and he's done tremendous this year but we've got to be smart and not put ourselves in that position," Lilley explained. "We talked at halftime and we were within a minute of subbing in because we said at halftime, you've got a yellow, can you go 15 minutes without getting another yellow?"
The dismissal meant that Rochester had to play down a man for a half hour but Garzi will only be suspended for next Thursday regular season finale but he will be available for the playoffs. After the red card to Garzi, Lilley introduced defensive players Sean Totsch and Grant van de Casteele to re-organize his team.
In stoppage time, Marius Obekop embarrassed right back Pat McMahon inside the area before sending a low ball across the face of goal. Substitute forward Stefano Bonomo redirected the ball goal-wards from close range past Miller. Mendoza tried to make the save but could not keep the ball from crossing the line.
Just seconds later, though Mendoza took a corner kick deep in stoppage time. With everybody pushed up for the set piece, Sean Totsch rose above the crowd and powered his header to the far post to win the game with the last touch of the game.
Referee David Mon blew the whistle for full time just after signaling the Rochester goal. The sequence of events was particularly difficult for the New York players who had celebrated Bonomo's goal as though they had won the league.
Bob Lilley was unusually upbeat about his team's performance on Saturday night, "I'm pretty happy with how the night went overall." Most coaches would be pleased with a rousing stoppage time winner but Lilley tends to dissect his team's performances beyond the results.
"We've had adversity all year and we find a way. I love that, I love how we responded. I think we did a good job limiting their chances for 30 minutes. To their credit they eventually snuck one in there but I love the fact that we battled. I would have much rather won the game 2-0 but you never know what's going to happen in a playoff game."
The night's hero was beaming after the game. Sean Totsch was excited not only with scoring the game-winner but the fashion in which he scored. "Scoring that late, not often do you have a goal where the whistle blows right after, so that was pretty special as well."
"This is a like a playoff game. We didn't really get a chance to play as pretty of soccer as we wanted but it came down to will and hard defensive work. I think what we can take out of this is that we can fight back and even with a guy down that we can still win the game," Totsch said.
"Tonight's result definitely adds to the belief the team has going into the playoffs but if you've been around the Rhinos this season you know that we have been a great team all year and that nothing gets us down. We've had other games - that Open Cup game [in Harrisburg] where we were down a man and scored three goals - we've been fighting all season. There's a reason we've only lost one game."
The Rhinos play their final regular season game on Thursday at Sahlen's Stadium against Toronto FC II. USL will present Rochester with the regular season trophy before the game.