The Rochester Rhinos announced late on Monday that the team had signed center back Ryan Felix and right winger Christiano Francois. Both have previously played in USL and impressed Rochester’s coaching staff as preseason trialists.
Ryan Felix brings valuable USL experience to the Rhinos and will partner returning center back Joe Farrell on day one. Coach Lilley was leaning on Farrell for organization and leadership in preseason when the team fielded trialists but that trend will probably continue. Farrell was a leader at LaSalle University and his presence on the field grew exponentially throughout his rookie season in 2016. The combination of Farrell and Felix leading from the back for Rochester this year is very promising.
Felix was a more regular figure in Orange County’s back line in 2015 than last season but combined for 1065 minutes over the two years. He made 24 appearances, 12 of which were starts, for OC. Felix played the sixth most for all OC defenders in 2015 despite joining the team in June rather than during preseason.
Felix’s time with Orange County allowed him to earn valuable professional experience but his limited minutes show that he was not yet a finished product. The Loyola Marymount graduate impressed from the outset in preseason camp with Rochester and can develop his game tremendously under defensive stalwart Bob Lilley.
Felix shares a player agent representation with second-year backup goalkeeper (and Rochester native) Dan Lynd.
Seeing Christiano Francois in action against Syracuse University in preseason, he looked like a clear upgrade over 2016 Rhino Michel Guilavogui, not least because of the two players’ similar stature. Francois is a speedy winger and the coaching staff in Rochester is looking to bring his tactical awareness up to meet his high work ethic.
Francois is an energetic player with a lighthearted demeanor that belies the series of difficult obstacles he’s had to overcome in both his playing career and his personal life. Steven Goff wrote an in-depth piece about the Haitian-born midfielder when D.C. United selected him in a special draft lottery in 2014 after only two seasons at the University of Maryland.
D.C. sent Francois on loan to USL affiliate Richmond Kickers, where he played 360 minutes over 10 league appearances. After United waived him in August 2014, Francois caught on with a team in the amateur American Soccer League but that team was expelled and that league is not widely recognized. From that wreckage in January 2015, Francois moved to Portugal where he featured regularly for SC Vila Real and Felgueiras 1932.
An extended stop in Rochester can prove to be a crucial period in the 23 year old’s career. He has shown himself to be coachable and has worked through brief bouts of stagnation in his play so far in preseason. Having several other French-speaking players (Bradley Kamdem, Sofiane Tergou, and probably Rayane Boukemia) in the squad clearly will not hurt his ability to settle down. Francois has not played more than one season for any professional team so far but things seem to be lining up for the Rhinos.
Bob Lilley told me that he was aware of the team’s shortcomings from wide positions in the 2016 campaign and that he sees Francois being an effective piece of Rochester’s attack this season. “He's doing very well,” Lilley said on Friday, ahead of the team’s announcement this week. “He was good against Pittsburgh and he did it again today. “
“The pattern of his play is getting better and he's starting to pick guys out in the final third. He set up the second goal today, he got in around his corner, and he did well in possession. He's quick – he can beat guys off the dribble.”
Lilley may be looking at employing a somewhat asymmetrical attack with Jalen Brown cutting inside off the left wing and Francois hugging the sideline on the right flank. “He'll stretch teams wide and if they play high he can get in behind them.”
“We're working on his crossing in practice, but he gets into good areas,” Lilley said. “He's a handful. If you don't get help on him, his pace can cause a lot of problems.”
“I think he's a young player who's got a great engine. Sometimes with guys who are really fast they don't have a great engine; they're real explosive but then they need to rest. When he's playing well, he can just keep running up and down.” Lilley talked about the process of finding equilibrium between the highs and lows of a young player’s performances and refining the exuberant talent into a more complete package.
Both Ryan Felix and Christiano Francois come to Rochester with both experience and upside. The pair of recent signings should both be in the starting lineup when the Rhinos opener their season on the road against Bethlehem Steel FC on April 1.