The Rochester Rhinos came into Saturday night's USL game against Eastern Conference leading Louisville City FC on a 21-game undefeated run at home in the regular season. Rochester carried a 2-3-2 record in the past 7 games through all competitions and ultimately, the team's current form trumped the team's its trend.
Head coach Bob Lilley suggested after the team's loss to the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday that he might employ the same defensive formation with three center backs and wing backs supporting the flanks. On Saturday he sent out that back line in the first half but it largely failed to keep its shape.
Ryan James kept a position fairly high on the right wing, which dragged the rest of the defenders to compensate. As such, speedy left back Bradley Kamdem was not able to get forward effectively with those extra defensive burdens and ball-winning midfielder Mike Garzi was pulled to the left wing to cover that vacated space.
Garzi was supposed to partner with Wal Fall in the center of midfield but neither player shined in the game. In front of these defensive midfielders, Sofiane Tergou had free rein to playmake and find forwards Asani Samuels and Steevan dos Santos. While dos Santos wasn't quite as electric on Saturday as his performance against the Red Bulls, the team suffered from Samuels' lack of composure or positive first touch.
Just before the half-hour mark, Louisville took advantage of a sloppy clearance and poor defending from the whole back line to score the game's only goal. Rookie center back Joe Farrell attempted to hit a ball up to a teammate in midfield but his pass was taken out of the air by Louisville's Aodhan Quinn without a Rochester player near him. Quinn easily found the feet of George Davis IV cutting inside from the left, evading light pressure from Dom Samuel, and Davis quickly moved the ball on to Niall McCabe.
Louisville's right winger Andrew Lubahn made a diagonal run from the wing and Kamdem never got goal-side of his mark. Farrell half-heartedly stepped up to McCabe at the top of the 18-yard box but offered no real pressure on the Louisville attacking midfielder. McCabe picked out Lubahn's run and the winger was able to take a touch in the penalty area before firing a left footed shot to the far post out of the reach of goalkeeper Tomas Gomez. Center back Sean Totsch reacted late to the pass and was only able to watch the goal-scoring shot. Ryan James was jogging back and was still outside of the area as Louisville's bench celebrated their eventual game-winner in 28th minute.
Rochester's only offensive threat of the game was a goal by Kenardo Forbes called back for offside. Forbes took a corner from the Rhinos' left side and Louisville partially cleared the ball. Substitute attacking midfielder Michel Guilavogui fired a ball into the mix that Fall flicked wide left to Forbes. Forbes beat two defenders and blasted a right-footed shot into the upper corner in the 83rd minute but the assistant referee had his flag raised. Forbes was clearly offside on the initial pass from Guilavogui but it appeared that Louisville defender Sean Reynolds may have dropped deep enough to keep Forbes on before Fall's touch.
With somewhat of a whimper, the Rochester Rhinos dropped their first USL regular season game since August 10, 2014. Despite ending a 21-game USL unbeaten run at home (24 games if you count the USL playoffs), the Rhinos did not seem panicked after the match.
I asked team captain Mike Garzi about whether the result hurt the team. "I don't think it does. I think you have to look at it from a positive point of view; we're 5-4-3," Garzi said. "Obviously we'd like to get a few wins in there. We definitely think the last two games we could have gotten points, if not wins. We're playing well. I think that's what we need to take away from the games. As the season goes on, the results will start to show. At the beginning of the season, we weren't playing as well and we were getting results. Now we're playing better but we haven't quite gotten the results. Sometimes that's how it goes, but that's why it's a long season."
I asked Garzi what needs to change on the field to ensure the results match performances moving forward. "I think in order to get those results, we need to be a little bit more committed to getting in the box," he said. "We're getting good service in. Guys are getting on the end of things. It's just those little movements, those little extra things to get the goal. Sometimes it doesn't bounce for you; sometimes it does. I think if we keep doing what we're doing from the back two-thirds on, and then we start being a little bit more aggressive in the final third, the results will start coming our way."
Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley was similarly positive despite the loss. "I'm really happy with the performance. I think the one mistake in the first half, we had defenders there and for a guy to trap it and get a shot off: it's a bad goal for us."
"We've rotated a lot of guys," Lilley said. "Louisville are playing as well as anyone in the league, even on the road, so it was always going to be a tough game. The result is disappointing but we're starting to build. A lot of guys that weren't starting early in the year are starting to show well, gain confidence, and I think there's a lot we can do. We can put pressure on late in games. We can go big. We can keep the ball better. We just gotta keep getting better."
Lilley likened the success of Louisville this season to what the Rhinos were able to do while running the table in USL last year. "Hats off to Louisville; they got the goal and they made it stand up. It's what we did to teams last year and I think it's what we will do to teams. We're getting close. We're getting stingier and stingier, better defensively. We're starting to possess the ball better. Long-term, I know we'll score goals. I think that's the important thing, we've just got to keep at it."
The Rhinos have now lost two consecutive games at home in all competitions for the first time since May 2013, after a 1-0 loss to Orlando City in the league and 5-1 defeat to New England Revolution in the Open Cup. The Revolution have not sent a player on loan to Rochester since the third game of the USL season on April 17.