The Rhinos scored in the 7th minute of the match and never looked back.
The visiting Independence struggled to clog up the middle defensively and Rochester exploited the gap between Bilal Duckett and Henry Kalungi. In the 6th minute, the Rhinos played a long ball up from the back that Steevan dos Santos contested in the air. A few yards into the attacking half of the field, dos Santos got past Duckett and the former Rhinos fullback fouled dos Santos to earn a booking.
Defensive midfielder Wal Fall struck the free kick beautifully from 30 yards out that flew past John Berner. Charlotte's goalkeeper just missed making the save after the ball curled over the wall and down to the far post. Rochester took the lead in the 7th minute and the team continued to drive forward.
Following his tremendous goal, Fall popped up in the middle of the field to play dos Santos into the channel with an acrobatic scissor kick. Dos Santos picked up the ball and played a clever low pass into the feet of Brandon Beresford, who attempted to flick the ball to Volesky. The play showed inventiveness and creativity in the attack that Rochester has lacked at times this season even though Charlotte was able to clear.
Rochester head coach Bob Lilley instills in his players a sense of team-defending, which starts with pressure from the forwards. Dos Santos closed down Duckett, who attempted to play with the ball. The Cabo Verdean forward forced a turnover from Charlotte's central defender and was through on Berner in goal. The goalkeeper did get a piece of the shot but couldn't stop the shot from dos Santos and the Rhinos doubled their advantage in the 23rd minute.
Rochester pressed the issue with a dynamic attack through the first half. Kenardo Forbes saw a shot flash across the face of goal in the 28th minute after a crafty entry pass from dos Santos on the right side of the box. Six minutes later, Volesky collected a poor clearance attempt by Duckett and teed up dos Santos for a shot. Berner easily held the 25-yard effort from dos Santos in the 34th minute.
Charlotte made three substitutions to start the second half and the changes appeared to shift the run of play in the visitors' favor. After a period of pressure by the Independence, forward Brian Brown saw his shot blocked by Vasili Apostolopoulos seven yards from goal in the 49th minute.
As Charlotte looked to peg Rochester back at the beginning of the second period, the Rhinos found space on the counter attack. In the 51st minute, Volesky drove up the right side but failed to pick out the central run of dos Santos or shoot on frame from the top of the area. Five minutes later, Forbes had three teammates attacking with him and he elected to play Fall on the right side of the box but Pat Slogic cleared behind for a corner.
Just before the hour mark dos Santos had a chance to seal the game. He drove up the right side into the Charlotte penalty area as his teammates were trying to get into space in the middle. With one goal already to his name, dos Santos lashed at the ball and saw his shot swing out into outside netting at the near post.
In the 71st minute, Rochester appeared to finally have put the game to bed. After the ball pinged around the Charlotte box, Forbes headed a diagonal ball across the face of goal into the path of Sofiane Tergou. The French-born attacking midfielder blasted a volley past a hopeless Berner just inside the post for Rochester's third goal of the night.
Perhaps the Rhinos felt the contest was done and dusted but Charlotte tried to make things interested. Substitute forward Aly Hassan finished a short cross from Brown in the 75th minute. Rochester goalkeeper Tomas Gomez was shuffling to his right but Hassan smartly hit the ball back where it came from on the side volley. Gomez could only watch as the caressed shot crossed the line for a 3-1 scoreline.
While the Independence were unable to mount a serious comeback after their first goal, they did succeed in making the final ten minutes interesting. The center official, Henrik Karlsson, decided that substitute defender Jack Metcalf slid into the back of Fall with his studs showing and issued a straight red card. After the dust settled from the fracas, midfielder Jun Marques Davidson saw his second yellow card in two minutes to receive his own marching orders.
Down to ten men, Charlotte played with spirit but never mounted a serious challenge on Rochester's goal. Within six minutes of stoppage time, late substitute Sean Totsch likely should have received a red card. Rochester's utility defender/midfielder took a ran at Jorge Herrera after the ball rolled out of bounds and it appeared in realtime as though Totsch connected a forearm to Herrera's jaw. Inexplicably, especially considering the two previous dismissals, Karlsson deemed the incident merely worthy of a booking.
After Totsch got off easily, Charlotte's midfielder Enzo Martinez earned two separate bookings and the visitors ended the match with just 8 players.
With the win, Rochester moves onto the Eastern Conference semifinal. If New York Red Bulls II defeat Orlando City B on Sunday, then Rochester will travel to Red Bull Arena. However, if Orlando manages to pull out the upset then the Rhinos would host the conference semifinal on Saturday, October 8.
Rochester's surprise goal-scorer spoke to media after the game and was expectedly for of smiles. "I saw the goalkeeper was too wide to [his] left and I hit the ball over the wall," Wal Fall said. "It was my luck he didn't see the ball and it went inside."
Laughing, Fall described the conversation he had with Kenardo Forbes as both players stood behind the free kick. "I think Kenny wanted to shoot the ball but I felt good in this game. I said to him, "Let me shoot this ball," and it was a goal."
Rochester played a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in midfield, which placed more responsibility on Fall but the German was not overwhelmed. "I feel comfortable with four in midfield and I think if we play five in the back, we have a lot of running to do in the midfield. We can play both formations and I can play well in both."
Steevan dos Santos told media how the early game changed the complexion of the contest. "The last game here against them was tied 0-0 and to score early was better for us because now they have to come and give more space like they did for me to score the second goal."
Speaking of that goal, dos Santos did his homework on former Rhinos fullback Bilal Duckett. "I've played against him a couple times and I know normally he tries to dribble forward. When he tried to take the ball back, I read it, and I just got the ball from him."
The second-year forward handled a question about the team's preferred opponent out of New York and Orlando, who play on Sunday. "It's always better for us to play at home. But probably New York is going to win the game because what they did in the regular season was unbelievable, less than us last year but still. Probably we're going to play there but it doesn't matter. We've played there against them and we played very well."
Dos Santos sighed with a sense of relief before responding to a question about the team avoiding suspensions and injuries in this playoff game. "It's always good when we have all the guys fit for the games," he said, looking ahead to next weekend's Eastern Conference semifinal. "The coach has more problems to make the lineup and we have more help from the bench like today. Now we just have to focus."
True to form, Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley did not allow himself to get carried away with the jovial atmosphere postgame. "I'm disappointed that we were reckless at the end and we didn't need to be," Lilley said.
After tempering his response, Lilley did praise his side's performance. "I just liked our mentality and how we started the game. Sometimes we get a goal and we don't really create but I felt like we kept looking for more chances, which is a good sign."
"They tried to play a high line but it's dangerous to play a high line against Christian," Lilley said of Charlotte. "Steevan and Christian are going to cause problems. We were aggressive tonight. We obviously put an extra body a bit higher, Brandon [Beresford], and it worked."
Lilley looked ahead to what he considered the likely matchup against New York Red Bulls II. "We have to go back to work this week and figure out how we're going to play New York. They've seen us plenty of times."
"We're going to have to play well, bottom line. I thought we played - it wasn't our best soccer tonight but there was an appetite there and that's a good sign at playoff time. They're not afraid to play."