The Rochester Rhinos battled back twice to draw level with a Steevan dos Santos brace on the road in the playoffs and force extra time. Wal Fall scored in extra time to give the Rhinos their first lead of the game before the referee awarded a dubious penalty late in the game to allow Red Bulls II to push the match to a shootout. Dos Santos missed his penalty and all five shooters converted for New York to move on to host the Eastern Conference Final next weekend.
Even though Derrick Etienne, Jr., was called up to the Haiti national team this week, he was available for selection after Hurricane Matthew forced the postponement of Haiti's game. Unsurprisingly, New York head coach John Wolyniec had his players from Etienne often and early. The electric attacking midfielder caused a headache for Rochester throughout he first half and scored the game's opening goal.
In a one-on-one matchup with Rochester's right back Ryan James, Etienne waited for James to dive in before cutting onto his right foot. James did his best to recover and close down the shooting lane but the Haitian attacker calmly slotted his shot past Tomas Gomez and inside the near post in the 20th minute.
A little over a minute later, Christian Volesky won a free kick for Rochester just outside New York's area. Steevan dos Santos frantically called for the ball on a short run to the left of goal and Volesky cleverly played him through with a quick pass on the set piece. Dos Santos outmuscled New York's defender and placed his shot under Ryan Meara for the equalizer in the 22nd minute.
Hoping to avoid the same situation, Red Bulls waited until the 44th minute to score again to prevent another quick turnaround. Vincent Bezecourt attacked up New York's left flank and played a low cross into the center of Rochester penalty area. Florian Valot got a good shot off first time that forced Gomez into a diving save. All of Rochester's defenders converged on Valot and no one was able to close down Brandon Allen who bundled home the rebound from close range to give New York its second lead of the game.
After halftime, Rochester pushed the issue and was clearly looking for the early second half goal. For the second time on the night, dos Santos popped up with an equalizer. Jamaican playmaker Kenardo Forbes started the attack by spreading the ball into the right channel for James. The Canadian fullback hit quality service into the box first-time with his right foot. Inexplicably, New York's defense lost the big Cabo Verdean forward who was able to power home an uncontested header from 7 yards out in the 55th minute.
Despite a few quality looks from both sides in regulation, the match was tied after 90 minutes and the 2016 USL Eastern Semifinal went to extra time. The first twenty minutes of extra time saw lots of pressure from Rochester and a half-hearted penalty appeal. Dos Santos had his shirt pulled in the area when he was trying to get on the end of an Asani Samuels header but the referee deemed his theatrics too much or the shirt tug not violent enough to warrant a foul.
In the 19th minute of extra time, a corner kick from Forbes bounced around the box before sitting up for Volesky. The second-year Rhinos forward has scored goals with a number of impressive techniques and his acrobatic overhead kick forced Meara to concede another corner. The second time around, Forbes was able to pick out defensive midfielder Wal Fall who headed on frame. Fall found a pocket of space between the penalty spot and the top of the 6 yard box and Meara was unable to keep out the powerful header in the 110th minute of the match.
A minute after scoring the go-ahead goal, Rochester brought on two defenders and looked to squeeze the match until the final whistle. In the 118th minute, substitute defender and assistant coach George Kyriazis intercepted a ball from Etienne but was in turn caught in possession New York. A through ball from the Red Bulls found Dan Metzger running into the penalty area. Dominic Samuel appeared to run behind Metzger, the midfielder fell over in the box, and the match official pointed to the spot.
Brandon Allen stepped up to the spot in the penultimate minute of the game and scored past his former college roommate to send the game to a shootout.
Wal Fall, Aaron Long, Joe Farrell, Derrick Etienne, Jr., Vasilis Apostolopoulos, and Brandon Allen all converted their spot kicks. Having already scored twice in the match, most observers would have expected Rochester's first non-defensive penalty taker to score but dos Santos skied his shot over the bar. Dan Metzger and George Kyriazis both scored to put the result on Konrad Plewa's shoulders. The 24-year old fullback, who suffered a stroke over the summer, shot caromed in off the woodwork to seal victory for New York.
This contest was a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinal in which dos Santos scored a brace and Plewa was sent off the first half. In 2016, dos Santos again scored twice against Red Bulls II but Plewa played hero instead of villain to advance New York to the Eastern Conference Final.
Rochester was unable to defend its 2015 USL Championship but going out on penalties on the road to the regular season winners is nothing to be ashamed of. The result will sting because of the soft penalty call late in extra time after the Rhinos took their first lead of the night, but Rochester's 2016 season was impressive nonetheless.