When both of Rochester’s leading scorers the past two seasons, Christian Volesky and Steevan dos Santos, signed for other USL teams, there were legitimate concerns about where the goals would come from for Rochester. First-year Rhino forwards Darius Madison and Jochen Graf each scoring a goal against Bethlehem in the team’s season opening 3-2 win should assuage those nerves.
Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley lined his team up in a 4-4-1-1 against Steel FC with Ryan James operating behind Madison. The central midfield partnership of Wal Fall and Kenardo Forbes was outstanding throughout the game and Bethlehem struggled to break through Rochester’s first line of four, let alone the second.
The Rhinos got things off to a brisk start when Mike Garzi stripped the ball from MLS veteran Brian Carroll. Rochester’s fourth-year midfielder found the feet of Madison and the former Philadelphia academy forward did the rest. Madison shifted the ball from his left foot to this right to open up a shooting lane for himself just inside the top of the area. Madison picked out his target just inside the far post and finished low across the face of goal. Starting with a turnover in a promising area, Madison’s quick strike gave Rochester the lead in the 9th minute.
Garzi was lined up as the left midfielder but often drifted inside to allow overlapping runs from left back Bradley Kamdem. The French-born defender drove upfield in the 29th minute but his cross was too close to 16-year old Bethlehem goalkeeper Tomas Romero.
Rochester centerback Ryan Felix drew a foul from Giliano Wijnaldum, younger brother of Liverpool midfielder Georginio on loan from the Union. Wijnaldum tangled himself up in Felix’s legs and then stumbled over top of the Rhinos defender to concede the first penalty of the game. In the 34th minute Wal Fall coolly dispatched his spot-kick low to the goalkeeper’s right side to double Rochester’s advantage.
The Rhinos looked comfortable whether in possession or frustrating Bethlehem’s attacking forays. As the half wore on, the home side grew until they The home side finally set up a period of sustained pressure in the final minute of first half stoppage time. After the ball pinged around the Rochester area a few times, midfielder Stefan Defregger got caught attempting to dribble out of his own box and Josue Monge dispossessed him. Monge drew the attention of several Rochester players in what Coach Lilley described as a “panicked” play. Even though defenders were positioned behind the ball, Madison recklessly challenged the 18-year old midfielder from behind to give Bethlehem a lifeline.
Davies stepped up to finished his penalty to claw a goal back for the hosts with the last kick of the first half. Bethlehem came out to start the second half reinvigorated and quickly fashioned chances. Auston Trusty saw his headed effort served up by Brian Carroll bounce back off the crossbar in the 67th minute.
Not long after, second half substitutes Cory Burke and Seku Conneh combined to earn Bethlehem’s second penalty of the game. Wijnaldum’s long throw from the left flank sailed into the middle of Rochester’s box and Conneh rose up to attempt an overhead kick. Instead of finding the ball, the Liberian forward’s foot made contact with Garzi’s back as the Rhinos tried to clear. With no whistle, the ball fell into the path of Burke, who went down after a hip check from Felix.
Conneh converted his kick in the 72nd minute, just ten minutes after coming into the game. With the contest tied, the visitors could have safely held for the 2-2 draw but Rochester’s substitutes pressed the issue.
Fresh off of international duty with Guyana, Brandon Beresford entered the game in the 76th minute and combined well with forward Jochen Graf who replaced Madison 11 minutes earlier. Rochester’s third change, inverted winger Jalen Brown, was also instrumental in the eventual game-winner.
Late in the match, Jordan Dover drove up the field from his right back position. As he approached the Bethlehem box, Dover dished the ball out wide to James. The rookie winger, Brown, met the cross from James at the far post and nodded it toward Graf. The former Bradley University forward wedged himself between the inexperienced goalkeeper and Bethlehem’s center back Trusty and calmly swung his foot through the volley in the 88th minute.
Despite a shot from Conneh late in stoppage time, Graf’s first goal as a Rhino stood up as the deciding tally in the team’s season opener. After the match I spoke to Coach Lilley about his team’s performance. Lilley said he was disappointed to concede both penalties, especially the first one coming so late in the first half, but he was encouraged by the way his players responded to Bethlehem’s second goal.
“It was not an easy game, regardless of how we looked early on. They had a lot of quality and I think we played well enough today over the 90 minutes to certainly deserve a result. Winning it late was fortunate but the guys battled hard. To get three points on the road is always a real positive for us.”
“I think we defended well enough generally. We don't generally give up a ton of penalties. It was one game and it didn't cost us,” Lilley said. “I think those plays are correctable. We were caught a few times but I think our overall defending was good.” On the penalties his side conceded Lilley joked, “At least make them earn a goal, don't bail them out.”
I asked Lilley how important it was to see his substitutes affecting the game after coming on. “That's the best thing they can do. They showed me they wanted to win the game,” he said. “We could have locked that down for 2-2. If the players weren't playing as well as they were late on, then that may have been our choice as coaches. But the players showed they wanted the third goal to win the game.”
“The response was tremendous after that second goal,” Lilley said. “Jochen [Graf] and Brandon Beresford came on and made a difference. It's nice to get the goal from Jochen and from Darius today, for both our strikers to each get on the score sheet is great.”
Lilley praised the work of midfielders Forbes, Garzi, and Fall before admitting, “There weren't really any poor performances.” Forbes was sporting the captain’s armband against Bethlehem and performed like a leader on both sides of the ball.
“We came up against a good team at home and it was a battle. We told them that if it's 2-0 at halftime, they might still be deflated to start the second half. But then we gave up that late goal [in the first half] and that lapse in concentration made it a game. It was a gut-check in the second half especially when they tied it but we coped pretty well.”
“They showed they still had the mindset that they could win the game. They weren't willing to give those points back, they worked too hard over the 90 minutes and played too well, especially in the first half, to let that game get away from them.”
The Rhinos showed that they could both crack a defense early on with Madison’s strike and scrap until the final whistle with Graf’s late winner. Hopefully Rochester will not need to employ both in every game over the course of the 2017 USL season.