Rochester prepared this past week knowing that Charleston could close the gap at the top of the USL standings by the end of the weekend. Instead of closing the existing 6-point gap, the Battery lost to Toronto FC II on Friday night and fell 1-0 to the Rhinos at Sahlen's Stadium on Sunday.
While Charleston battled in the heat on tired legs, the game's only goal came courtesy of Western New York's favorite Cabo Verdean, Steevan Humberto Fortes Duba dos Santos.
After a series of short passes on the far side of the field, Alex Dixon played a through ball for Tony Walls. Rochester's captain raced down the pass before it reached the endline and hit a low cross towards Duba at the near post. The Cabo Verdean power forward was able to hold off a Charleston defender and score a fantastic goal.
Walls played his pass to Duba's right foot while the forward was crashing the near post. Off-balance and with Taylor Mueller on his shoulder, Duba managed to hit a backheel shot that trickled past Odisnel Cooper to the far post. Duba's special goal gave Rochester the lead in the 10th minute. Cooper was positioned to save anything but the most targeted shot and Duba's backheel hit side netting just inside the post.
Aside from the spectacular goal, Rochester didn't do much with the ball in the first half. It seemed the Rhinos midfield was content to allow Charleston to maintain possession for large stretches before halftime. Bob Lilley noticed this complacency and energized his team at the break.
"At half I told them that we're sitting too deep. I don't think [the first half drop-off] it was by design. I think it was a little bit hotter and with the goal some of the guys were just trying to conserve their energy. I think they did a good job at halftime in regrouping." Because Charleston played in Toronto on Friday, Lilley told his team, "We need to assert ourselves in the second half."
Rochester produced half a dozen quality chances in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Unfortunately the Rhinos could not finish any of their opportunities. Both Johnny Mendoza and Duba had two clear goal-scoring opportunities but failed to find the back of the net.
Throughout the game Charleston central defender Shawn Ferguson was antagonizing Rochester's players and by the end of the game was physically attacking his opponents. On nearly every aerial challenge between Ferguson and Duba, the defender kicked or elbowed or punch Rochester's forward. As the clock wound up, Ferguson got into an ugly series of confrontations with Vasilis Apostolopoulos.
The two central defenders tangled a few times, highlighted by the Apostolopoulos appearing to chokeslam his opponent behind the referee's gaze and a challenge for which Ferguson was booked. Ferguson turned behind the play and took a number of steps to charge Apostolopoulos in order to strike the Greek defender in the throat with his forearms. Despite clear violent conduct with the intent to cause harm to an opponent, Charles Murphy inexplicably showed Ferguson only a yellow card in stoppage time for the incident.
In his eighth start of the USL season, Sean Totsch stepped into the defensive midfield role while Mike Garzi was suspended and Tyler Rudy was nursing a foot injury. Totsch was solid for the Rhinos and the rookie defender broke up every Charleston attack near him.
Totsch's strong play earned him some postgame praise from Rochester head coach Bob Lilley. "I thought Sean Totsch had a really good game in there," Lilley said after the game. "He's done it a few times this year. He's very comfortable in the holding role in midfield. It speaks to our depth that with Garzi out and Rudy not at 100% that we could throw him in. I thought he was solid all game."
Tyler Rudy came into the match in the second half but just as quickly exited the contest. Rudy aggravated a tender right foot that had prevented him from fully training this past week. After the game he showed off a bright purple bruise at the bottom of his foot and is anticipating scans either in Rochester or in New England.
Without wanting to speculate prematurely on how bad his injury could be, Rudy settled for telling me, "I definitely gotta let it rest and give it some time." The Georgetown alumnus was very diplomatic with his postgame comments about the officiating performance on Saturday: "They're humans too, they make mistakes just like all of us. It's gonna happen."
Tony Walls echoed that sentiment with his comments on the referees on Sunday. "It is what it is at this point. I've seen everything with the refs, the good, the bad, the terrible. We can't focus too much energy on that, we've just got to go about our business."
Duba told reporters after the game that with his position, the defender on him, and the ball that Walls played into him that the backheel was "the only chance I had... because there were no more options to score the goal, and luckily the ball went in."
Rochester's effective forward with an infectious smile also credited Bob Lilley for how the team fashioned the game's only goal. "Coach in training always says to run to the first post and that's what I did there." The 10th minute goal puts Duba into a tie with Christian Volesky for the team's goal-scoring lead.
Lilley was pleased with the performance and told assembled media that, "Today was one of our better games all year." Rochester's coach conceded that his team let off the gas in the first half but was pleased with the attacking contributions of his midfielders in the second half.
As his his style, Lilley didn't mince words about what made the difference in the contest. "We were able to capitalize first; we went for blood early." Coach continued, "We had a good start, we managed the game well, we kept our discipline... There was some extra stuff going on, but we kept our discipline and we kept our focus."
Rochester now looks ahead to a game at Charlotte Independence on August 1. The Rhinos played Charlotte to a scoreless draw at home on July 18. The team has now extended its unbeaten start to the 2015 USL season to 19 games (12-0-7) though Duba dismissed the importance of the run. "We don't focus on the unbeaten streak as much as focusing on each game and trying to win every time we play."