Last Thursday morning the New England Revolution and the Rochester Rhinos both announced the first two of at least four players moving on loan from the MLS club to its USL-Pro affiliate. Second-year goalkeeper Luis Soffner and rookie defensive midfielder Alec Sundly.
From a Revolution stand-point, sending Soffner out on loan always seemed to be on the cards with two quality goalkeepers battling for the starting spot in Bobby Shuttleworth and Brad Knighton. This move is a bit more puzzling from a Rochester perspective as the team recently signed young, promising goalkeeper John McCarthy and has invited the team's back-up from the past two years, Brandon Miller, in for preseason training (along with two other prospective 'keepers). Soffner will likely start the season as the second choice if McCarthy's finger injury heals well in the coming weeks.
Usually the Rhinos only roster two viable goalkeepers with the third option more of a part-time gig for a local guy. Because the Revolution players come to Rochester both on free loans and without salary demands, we are seeing a clear example of the affiliation deal allowing Rochester to strengthen depth at the goalkeeper position while still minding the overall wage bill, which was one of head coach Bob Lilley's main tasks heading into the 2014 season.
Alec Sundly is a more straightforward acquisition for the Rhinos. Lance "Sunshine" Rozeboom is the only natural defensive or ball-winning midfielder currently in the team. Rozeboom won the team's "Rookie of the Year" award in 2013 and could be given license to venture farther up the field with someone like Sundly playing alongside him. Sunshine Rozeboom had a number of notable strikes from just outside the 18-yard box last season and could excel as a late arriving option through the middle.
Sundly enjoyed a sparkling collegiate career at Cal and was selected in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft by the Revs. The rookie midfielder should slot in second at the depth chart behind Rozeboom and whether he starts from the outset of the season likely depends on the formation that head coach Bob Lilley plays.
The Rhinos are trying to pick up momentum while avoiding the blustery conditions in Western New York that have pushed training indoors. Bob Lilley will have a good idea of which of the 17 trialists he likes as the team has already played three preseason matches. Soffner and Sundly got a chance to blend into the squad during Sunday's exhibition match at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds after Friday's exhibition against Niagara University as cancelled due to adverse weather conditions.
Recent attacking midfield signing Minh Vu scored Rochester's only goal of a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh in the 86th minute on Sunday. Rochester was seemingly overrun at the start of the game by a prepared and disciplined Pittsburgh squad. Returning forward Jhonny Arteaga scored in the first half and added an assist in the second to cast aside the visiting Rhinos.
Last season Rhinos' fans bit their fingernails and burned ulcers into their guts trying to will the team to score late on. While Lilley hopes the team isn't trailing 2-0 going into the final stretch of matches, he will be encouraged by Vu's ability to penetrate Pittsburgh's backline in the dying minutes of the game.
USL Pro matches can be tight affairs and having a player with the mentality and ability to score late goals will be crucial. Vu offers a fresh, creative approach playing in between midfield and forward in a role that hasn't clicked for multiple players in Rochester during recent seasons.
The final three matches of the preseason are this Friday (21st) at home against Ottawa Fury FC of the NASL, Sunday (23rd) against Cornell University, and the following Saturday (29th) against the Montreal Impact. All the matches will be played at Sahlen's Stadium in preparation for the team season opener on the road at defending champions Orlando City on Saturday April 5.