While the Rochester Rhinos have set about quietly assembling a squad to challenge for the playoff spots in the USL Eastern Conference in 2017, one offensive signing may be the key to push Bob Lilly’s side over the top.
Right-footed left winger Jalen Brown is a technically gifted attacking player with as high a ceiling as any young player to sign with Rochester in recent years. Brown excelled in tight games at the collegiate level, scoring five game-winners in his four seasons at Xavier University. He was drafted by New York City FC and impressed enough during training to make several appearances for the MLS side in preseason.
It’s noteworthy that Jalen Brown stayed in preseason camp for NYCFC through the end of February. The promising winger traveled with the club both down to the Ecuador to face CS Emelec and to Arizona for the Desert Diamond Cup. Brown started several times for City, including both games in DDC against the Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids, as the wide-left forward in a 4-3-3. I doubt the Rhinos would line up the same way but it suggests that coaches are willing to try out Brown’s direct attack that worked so well for Xavier at the professional level.
While he got the start against the Rapids, Brown perhaps failed to take advantage of the opportunity according to C.A. Smith on Hudson River Blue:
“Unsigned rookie Jalen Brown has shown flashes of raw talent on the left flank, but I feel he was very much outperformed by newcomer Miguel Camargo, who made his first appearance for the Boys in Blue since arriving on loan from Panamanian club Chorillo in January. And with City signing MLS veteran Rodney Wallace last week, Brown’s odds aren’t looking any better. While I believe he still has somewhat of a chance to prove himself and that he could potentially be signed and loaned to a development club like San Antonio FC, I don’t expect him to crack into the first team.”
Brown was with the team as late as February 22’s game against Colorado but was not listed on NYCFC’s first-team roster on March 2. If Brown was nearly named to NYCFC’s MLS roster, and indeed may have if Miguel Camargo had not joined the team on loan from his Panamanian club, he is surely a talent for the USL level.
His knack for pulling game-winning goals out of nowhere bodes well, as does his near-relentless penchant for challenging defenders directly on the dribble.
Brown has performed in preseason for the Rhinos since signing on March 7, playing in his familiar left wing role. Despite scoring twice late against Toronto FC II on Friday March 17, coach Lilley told me that Brown has only shown the tip of the iceberg at this point.
“Because he doesn't play like a winger, he wants to cut inside, if you put him on the right he wouldn't just want to go to the corner and cross the ball. He comes inside; he's got a good right footed shot. He can find passes. He can chip balls into dangerous areas. He's quick and he's strong.”
Lilley noted Brown’s surprising composure when driving toward the opponent’s goal. “One time today he got in around the corner and he was able to pull the ball back to the penalty spot. He's seeing what's going on. He seems to be able to be relaxed enough. Some players have things speed up for them in the final third, but he seems to be able to assess everything and things slow down for him. He can pick someone out or recognize that it's a shooting opportunity. He does have a good final pass and a good strike on him.”
Lilley pinpointed Brown’s flexibility within Rochester’s system as another positive note to watch in 2017. “As his game develops, I think he can play any of the four front positions. I think even in behind the striker he can be effective as well as on either flank. I think he has something to offer in the final third, now obviously losing dos Santos and Volesky means we won't attack the same way but we need to be able to generate goal scoring chances and right now the guys are doing a pretty good job of it.”
For Brown, going into the often grueling USL season, Lilley said the focus is on cleaning up his touch and ensuring he’s plugged in for every play. “He's a player we're excited to have here. And he can give us some production offensively. It's good to be able to come on off the bench and impact the game.”
Because Brown remained in camp with NYCFC so late into preseason, the Rhinos offered a contract before the winger had come to Rochester.
“We got video of him at Xavier and we knew that we struggled with wide play last year,” Lilley said. “We were aware of our need and we scouted him at the MLS combine so when he became available, there were some other teams interested and we made the decision to not wait and potentially lose him.”
When asked if he regularly signed players without bringing them into camp first, Lilley gave a conclusive answer. “No, I definitely don't do it very often.”
Both for what he can offer on the opening weekend and for his potential to grow, Jalen Brown is a young attacking player that excites Lilley and Rochester’s coaching staff. Don’t be surprised if Rhinos fans see a lot of Brown this season.