The Rhinos faced Wilmington is a first-vs-eighth matchup on Saturday night. Though the gap in the standings was great, Rochester head coach Bob Lilley reminded media after the game that, "At this point every game's gonna be tight."
In front of a sparse crowd on a hot day in Western New York, Rochester calmly confident against the worst team in the Eastern Conference. The opening 25 minutes saw the Rhinos probing Wilmington with attacking sequences without really challenging the visitors.
Playing left midfield, Johnny Mendoza hoofed a ball forward from half-field for Alex Dixon to run onto. Dixon controlled the ball out of the air and drove into the box, drawing centerback Brian Ackley towards him. As Dixon looked up, he saw winger Kenardo Forbes sprinting into the area past Wilmington's stationary left back Fran Martinez. Forbes easily finished the perfectly set up centering pass from six yards to give Rochester the lead in the 26th minute.
The goal was the Jamaican winger's second in consecutive games and his third in USL this season. He told me after the game that he's made a concerted effort to improve his output in the last few weeks. "It's about getting hungry. As an attacker I need to produce, I can't just play and have a good game if I'm not getting on the scoresheet. The last few weeks I've changed my mentality, started to work harder, trying to get in the box more. And now it's paying off."
Forbes also explained how he's been effective recently as a winger in coach Lilley's system. "We've been working on it all season, for the outside guys to get inside the box. I did it last game twice and nearly scored two goals. I keep trying to do it, keep trying to work on my fitness."
Rochester went into halftime leading and seemed to have a comfortable game on their hands. That changed early in the second half when Wilmington's speed caught the Rhinos napping in defense. Rochester's right back Pat McMahon had pushed up into the attack before the Rhinos gave possession away to Wilmington. Will Heaney launched a 50-yard ball up the left channel for forward Qudus Lawal to chase.
Vasilis Apostolopoulos was a step in front of Lawal but attempted to control the ball instead of clearing it out and regaining the team's defensive shape. Wilmington's front-runner picked the ball off the Greek centerback and drove forward into the corner.
Lawal's presence in the corner drew Rochester's other central defender, Grant van de Casteele, over to him while vacating the box. Substitute midfielder Justin Moose made a lung-busting run from his own half to the Rhinos' penalty spot where he easily dispatched Lawal's service past Brandon Miller with the simplest of headers. The only defender near Moose was a recovering Julian Ringhof, who was still a few yards off Wilmington's goal scorer when Moose tied the game in the 59th minute.
After the hour-mark, the Rhinos pushed forward in numbers to retake the lead. Standing in the center circle, Tony Walls found substitute Sean Totsch advanced in the right channel. Totsch did well to beat his marker to the endline and play a good cross to the back post for Steevan Humberto Fortes "Duba" dos Santos. The towering forward sent his header back the way it came and Johnny Mendoza, who had made a near post run appeared to get a very slight touch.
The goal was called back because the AR on the far side flagged Mendoza offside despite Wilmington's Stefan Defregger straddling the line. Duba was particularly irate at the call in the 73rd minute but the Rhinos pressed forward to get their second goal.
Goalkeeper Andre Rawls punched out an 81st minute corner kick but Totsch headed it back into the fray, Duba wrestled for the ball at the top of the area, and substitute Asani Samuels headed it towards the Wilmington goal. Defender Paul Nicholson attempted to clear the ball laterally but Timi Mulgrew ran it down on the side of the penalty area, collected himself and dropped a pass to Kenardo Forbes.
Forbes sent first time service curling into the box that drew Rawls off his line. Duba stepped in front of Rawls, beating the goalkeeper to the cross, and knocked the ball into the path of Grant van de Casteele. The former Colorado Rapids defender willed his header into the back of the net in the 81st minute to restore Rochester's lead.
Van de Casteele described the goal to media after the game. "It got sent wide and I just saw an opportunity to get in the box and mix it up. Steevan did a great job contesting the goalie and I was just in the right place in the right time. I was able to get a lucky bounce."
The goal was van de Casteele's second in three games after not scoring in his first 16 league appearances for the Rhinos. This late-season surge from van de Casteele and Forbes is happening at the right time as traditional goal-scorers Duba and Christian Volesky, who is out after suffering a concussion in training on Wednesday, aren't finding the back of the net.
The Rhinos certainly didn't do themselves any favors with sporadic late defending but the team exorcised a demon tonight. Including this game against Wilmington, the team gave up a lead in three straight matches. Tonight, however, Rochester was able to retake the lead with a resurgent performance late in the second half.
Speaking about the goal that Rochester conceded, van de Casteele talked about the need for the defense to be sharper heading into the postseason. "Communication is definitely something that needs to happen better. We need to be organized behind the ball. When the defenders aren't involved in the play, we need to be putting players in the right spots so we can be putting out fires before they happen."
With regard to finding a winner against Wilmington after coughing up the lead, van de Casteele said, "We've been tested the last couples games, I think that tonight's result showed the team's character and our ability to fight back when our back is against the wall." Forbes echoed that sentiment, We're getting tougher. Each game we learn something new and we try to improve on that. The last couple of games we got tired and then they equalized and we didn't finish the game. I think we keep learning and that's good for the team going forward."
Coach Lilley was disappointed with the decision to disallow the team's goal in the 73rd minute, "I think we scored two after the equalizer, only one counted," but was more upset with the defending on the equalizer. "The game wasn't stretched," Lilley said, "Our balance wasn't right. There shouldn't be a goal that easy."
On Rochester's match-winner, Lilley was full of praise for Duba's work rate and Forbes's cross. "It was a good service and Steevan did really well on the goal to facilitate and get in the box. He did really well because without that hard run to the near post it's an easy play all day for the keeper. He deserves a lot of credit for that. It's hard."
"Wilmington passes the ball pretty well and you saw stretches where they're hard to press," Lilley said. "They're coming off a win last week. At this point every game's gonna be tight. Tonight we passed the test."
Lilley did mention that he wanted to get some clarification on why the 73rd minute goal was called back but said the officiating team left the field immediately after the final whistle. While a goal then would have eased the pressure off his team, Lilley stressed that they had chances before that point and that his defense should never have conceded the equalizing goal.
The Rhinos now have a five point lead over second-placed Louisville City FC after the expansion side drew at Tulsa Roughnecks on Saturday. Rochester now has six games remaining in the regular season, including four matches at home. The first of those four is next week against mid-table Harrisburg City Islanders.