This game was little more than a scrimmage for the two sides. Rochester wrapped up the regular season title weeks ago and Toronto fell out of serious playoff contention in the summer. Before the originally scheduled match was rained out on September 12, the two organizations had opened a dialogue about playing an actual scrimmage this coming weekend during Rochester's playoff bye week.
Rochester head coach Bob Lilley was very mindful of squad rotation going into Thursday's match. Regular left back Onua Obasi was still not fit for 90 minutes with a tight groin. Right back Pat McMahon was previously granted leave to attend a family wedding as the team had not planned on having a game this week. In their places, winger Alex Dixon and reserve wide player Drew Ruggles played as fullbacks.
Former Providence College winger Marcos Ugarte manned the left wing while Johnny Mendoza played on the right flank. Jamaican attacker Kenardo Forbes played a slightly withdrawn support forward with Colin Rolfe while Tony Walls partnered the weekend's hero Sean Totsch in the middle of the field.
The best chance of the first half for the visitors came through the speed of left winger Salvador Bernal, who caused fits for Dixon through the opening 45 minutes. Bernal ate up the space in behind Dixon and easily controlled a ball over the top but he curled his shot well wide of Miller's far post.
As both teams began making changes, the game settled into Rochester's favor during the second half.
Drew Ruggles drove forward and played Marcos Ugarte around the corner through the left channel. Ugarte played the ball into the center with his first touch and Colin Rolfe controlled the ball in a tight space. Rolfe took a step inside before shaking his defender to the outside to open up a shooting lane. Rolfe's left footed shot beat goalkeeper Phil DiBennardo inside the post to give Rochester the lead in the 69th minute.
Coming out of midfield, Christian Volesky played substitute forward partner Asani Samuels. The Jamaican-born rookie beat Toronto defender Klaidi Cela to the outside and fired a shot to the far post past 18-year-old DiBennardo. The 85th minute goal was Samuels's second in the league and fourth in all competitions this season.
While he wasn't credited with the assist, Volesky has now scored or had a hand in creating four of Rochester's last six goals in the past three games. Add to that the fact that Rolfe has scored three goals in less than a week, and four goals in his last three starts, and it's safe to say that Rochester's forward are firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason.
After the game fourth-year goalkeeper Brandon Miller spoke after earning his 13th clean sheet in league play about how the team has balanced maintaining positive form and preventing further injuries since wrapping up the regular season title.
"With all the injuries we've had it's always tough to make sure guys are ready for the playoffs but at the same time getting them the minutes that they need. We've done a great job this year, having the system and understanding what we need to do in each position, it's easy to just slot guys into new positions." The importance of versatility and depth players stepping up was also pinpointed by Bob Lilley.
When asked about the excitement of winning the regular season title, Miller broke into a smile. "It feels good but obviously it doesn't really mean much if we don't win the championship. We've got three more games to go so that what we're focusing on. We're gonna enjoy it tonight but we get back to work on Monday."
I asked Miller about the team's confidence hosting teams at Sahlen's Stadium where they've been undefeated in 2015. "Obviously we're always more confident playing here in front of our home fans but honestly we're confident anywhere we go. We're confident going to say, Sacramento in front of 11,000 fans."
He continued, "It's going to be great to play at home in front of our home fans so if we can get a lot of people out here to create an even better atmosphere than we already have and get those three wins."
Colin Rolfe was reserved but clearly pleased with his goal haul in recent games. "I'm feeling good, the team is really playing well right now. It's promising to see that going into these final games. We've got a pretty competitive team so going out these last few games there hasn't been an issue to stay focused. All the guys have been in the right state of mind."
The second-year forward told media about his goal, "Ruggles played a ball out for Marcos and I tried to get into the box. He gave me a great ball. I was originally going to pass it across and after my first touch I decided to just take the shot myself.
Rolfe described the moments for the goal to me in greater detail. "I was a little surprised at the time and space in the box. Once the defender started to step to me after I took my first touch, I saw the space and shimmied around him to open the shooting lane."
Rochester's only true forward in the first half, Rolfe took a few hits and spills during the game; the first came in just the third minute in a collision with imposing centerback Emeka Ononye. Rolfe told me that despite picking up some knocks early, he wanted to stick it out and prove himself. "It was a pretty fast-paced game and I was up there by myself so I had to cover a little bit more ground but after the goal went in, as any striker would, you know you want to stay on the field and score again."
When asked by Democrat & Chronicle reporter Jeff DiVeronica about the achievement of the regular season championship, the silverware for which was presented before the match, Rochester head coach Bob Lilley revealed the key to success both on the night and over the season.
"The players have always stepped up when we've had changes. That's the big story; the depth. We've been able to get results even on those nights when maybe we didn't have our strongest lineup. And we're versatile," Lilley said, echoing Miller's sentiments. "Things are going to happen in the playoffs and you need guys off the bench and you need starters."
One of those players off the bench was Revolution loanee Timi Mulgrew who entered the game in the 85th minute to replace the winded Kenardo Forbes on the right wing. As always Mulgrew was a tireless outlet option for Rochester late in the game and constantly made positive runs into space to attack Toronto's defense.
Bob Lilley noted that he's glad other teams have been gunning for his squad. "It serves us well that everyone has been trying to nick us. Toronto, you could see their quality of play in the first half, they were willing to go forward, their passing was very good and they made it a game."
"I think only giving up 15 goals in a season is really special for this group. It's nice to hit the 40 goal mark as well. I know we're in the middle of the pack in terms of scoring but I think it's a real strong number considering we got everyone's best punch."
"Giving up so few goals - when we needed goals we've scored them. Tonight for sure we needed goals because we wanted to win tonight, not to draw."
Because the Rochester Rhinos earned a first-round playoff bye, the team won't play again until they host either Richmond Kickers or Pittsburgh Riverhounds at 7:05PM on Saturday, October 3.