Rochester scored early at home but instead of dropping off the Rhinos grabbed a second before halftime and finished with the team's 14th clean sheet of the season.
With five games left in the regular season heading into Sunday's match against Saint Louis FC, the Rhinos are trying to shore up a first-round playoff bye. By virtue of the team's win over Harrisburg last weekend, Rochester had already secured a home match, as the team could finish no lower than third. The win over Saint Louis means that only second-placed Louisville could potentially catch them in the Eastern Conference standings.
Kenardo Forbes was the understated star of Rochester's impressive first half performance. The former Jamaican national team winger made smart decisions and moved the ball quickly to his teammates' feet. Those teammates returned the favor with heaps of praise during post-game interviews.
In just the fourth minute, right back Pat McMahon stepped up into midfield to break up an incipient Saint Louis attack. His tackle fell to the feet of Kenardo Forbes who deftly/aptly picked out the run of Colin Rolfe. Rolfe took one touch to set himself before using defender James Musa as a screen. The second-year Rhinos forward curled a shot on the ground to the far post just out of Alex Kann's reach as the goalkeeper saw the shot late.
Rolfe's third league goal of the season gave Rochester the early lead four minutes into the contest. Unlike other matches when the Rhinos scored first, the team did not let off the gas for the rest of the first half.
The Rhinos maintained heavy pressure on the visitors and nearly smothered them with attacking possession. That possession led to 8 total shots in the first half and the team's second goal. Kenardo Forbes and Johnny Mendoza set up at the corner flag on the near side for a rehearsed set piece. Forbes knocked his corner short to Mendoza who placed the ball for a weak-footed cross by the Jamaican winger.
Despite hitting the service with his left foot, Forbes was able to accurately find Tony Walls at the far post. Walls had done well to open up a few feet of space for himself inside the Saint Louis penalty area and the club captain easily nodded home to double Rochester's advantage in the 35th minute.
The fourth goal of the USL season, all from set pieces, illustrates not only the importance of Walls to the team but also the variety of ways Rochester can hurt its opposition.
Brandon Miller carried 10 clean sheets into Sunday's game and his shut-out against Saint Louis has tied him with Rochester's Kristian Nicht (2012) and Orlando's Miguel Gallardo (2011). While the fourth-year goalkeeper did not have anything to do in the first half, Miller did answer the call on two occasions in the second half.
The more dramatic of the two blocks came off the foot of Bryan Ciesulka. Saint Louis forward Aaron Horton knocked a long ball down into the path of his teammate at the top of Rochester's 18-yard box. Ciesulka's heavy shot forced a leaping save from Miller to punch the ball over the bar for a corner in the 88th minute. Miller was dominant in his area all game, routinely grabbing corners and crosses out of the air.
Saint Louis FC was growing throughout the second half but the Rhinos were able to hold onto the clean sheet. After the game, Rochester's players were very open about the team's performance and the prospect of heading into the postseason.
In response to a question by Jeff DiVeronica about the speed of his decision making and the pass up to Rolfe on the team's first goal, Forbes joked, "That's why I'm a midfielder. Before I get the ball I know my passes. I saw the run way before I even picked up the ball. That's the reason why I'm a midfielder; I'm the creative player on the team."
Kenardo spoke at length about the direction of the team looking into the postseason. "It's the right time to build momentum, going into the playoffs. We've got four more games and we're doing good. We're creating the chances and we're finishing them. I think everything's coming together at the right time. I think everything's gelling properly right now. It's the best time for us."
All-star goalkeeper Brandon Miller has a unique vantage point to observe his teammates during the game. He was very happy to see Colin Rolfe grab a goal against Saint Louis. "I thought it was big for him. I see that every day from him in training. That goal he scored today, he's scored that on me plenty of times. It's just great for his confidence, great for him to get on the field and get a goal."
Miller was similarly full of praise for Kenardo Forbes. "He's our creative player. That's what Bob preaches in pregame and throughout the week in training, get the ball to Kenardo, make those runs and the ball's going to get there. Today, we got the ball to Kenardo and he knows where the runs are going to be. He hits the ball perfectly and we got a couple goals."
Tony Walls described his movement for the team's second goal to me after the game. "I saw the flight of the ball a little earlier than my defender did. I saw that he was leaning near post and I made a hard run to the back post and Kenardo put it right on my head. It was a great ball from Kenardo."
Mirroring what Miller said about getting the ball to Forbes, Walls said the Jamaican is the focal point of the team's attack. "Anytime we have the opportunity to get Kenardo the ball at his feet, we do. He's really good going forward. He can provide quality service and a quality shot if necessary. I think he's as good as anyone in the league in terms of play-making and beating guys off the dribble and finding the pass in the final third. We're lucky to have him."
Grant van de Casteele took a knock to his knee and Duba pulled his right hip flexor at the end of last week's game. The pair didn't train over the week and the coaching staff did not want to rush either player back from injury. With an eye to the playoffs and concern over player availability in the postseason, Lilley subbed off Onua Obasi as he regains fitness after an extensive bout with an ankle injury.
"Obasi's not 100% fit. He missed a lot of games and last week he played 20 minutes. He obviously has that quality on the ball but he struggled today at times."
"I think we gotta look at that, yeah," Lilley said about being more cautious with minor injuries at this point in the season. "We gotta be smart but we had to get the points." Lilley revealed that Garzi was fully fit to play but the coach was concerned with him picking up another yellow card before the end of the season.
"I thought we were lost on a foggy night," Lilley said characteristically dampening post-game celebrations. "Honestly, I don't think we knew where we were going the whole game. It's good to win games when you're lost; not everyone can do that. Hopefully we don't have to go through that again."
Despite the reluctance to bask in the home victory, Lilley will encourage the team to keep up the strong run of form next weekend on the road in Richmond. That game kicks off at 7:00PM on Saturday, September 5.