I spoke with Rochester Rhinos Head Coach Bob Lilley on Friday afternoon about the team's preseason campaign. Lilley told me that the club is making progress in negotiations with a number of players while the team is coming together on the field.
The coaching staff was particularly impressed with the performance at home against Ottawa Fury FC of the NASL on March 10. Rochester stormed out to a 3-1 lead, and created a few quality chances to put the game away, before ultimately settling for a draw. Despite not seeing out the winning result, Lilley said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the effectiveness of the team's attack in the early goings. While the team is returning three forwards, the team has lacked familiar faces in midfield.
Attacking midfielder Kenardo Forbes trained with the team for the first time on March 17 after his indoor team, Syracuse Silver Knights, exited the Major Arena Soccer League playoffs. Also missing from the team's midfield for the first several preseason games were Sean Totsch and Tony Walls. As of Friday, the pair had not yet arrived in Rochester following the conclusion of the Milwaukee Wave's season in the MASL.
Vasilis Apostolopoulos, who had been stranded in Toronto with visa issues, joined the team on March 11. The Greek central defender featured against Montreal and Toronto and will carry the brunt of the work in the back in 2016. His former central defense partner and 2015 USL All-League First Teamer, Grant van de Casteele, will not be returning to the team.
Because of van de Casteele's absence, Lilley told me the team is "actively looking at centerback," as only Apostolopoulos and Joe Farrell are under contract. On Friday the team had signed two players, pending USL approval, and was close to terms with two additional players. The Rhinos are "hoping to add another right back," but wide attacking players are the top priority. Rochester is looking to bring in more attack-minded midfielders on trial before the USL season opener.
Bob Lilley told me that he has "started talks with New England so they know where our needs are but they haven't told us who they're sending." The Revolution should be sending their players to Western New York in the next couple weeks, based on previous years. In 2013, the players were announced on March 26; on March 13 in 2014, and on April 3 last year. The lack of communication coming from New England undoubtedly affects the plans in Rochester as the Rhinos continue to invite players to camp to fill positional holes.
One player currently on trial in Rochester is two-time former Rhino Danny Earls. Earls originally signed with the team in 2008, spent two season with Colorado Rapids, rejoined the Rhinos in 2012, and spent the past two years with Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL. Earls played centrally for Pittsburgh but has slotted in on the left side of midfield in training the past week. If Earls impresses the coaching staff, a third stint in Rochester would extend the status he already has with the fans.
Currently the team has 13 players announced and a couple more trickling in. Other teams around the league have had the bulk of their squad set for weeks but the Rhinos are again leaving their roster building late in preseason. Bob Lilley responded to this observation by saying, "I'd rather get it right than settle earlier." He continued, "I'm not too concerned about having the full roster set before the first game."
The USL allows teams to carry 30 active senior players but Lilley isn't looking to sign that many. "We don't have lots of games in quick succession and we can only dress 18." In past seasons, teams would often play two games in three nights or even back-to-back, necessitating fuller player rotation.
Lilley suggested that the final number will be "somewhere around 23," but pointed out the team might be forced into signing additional players later in the season if there are injuries, as happened when the Rhinos signed Nate Bourdeau after both Christian Silva and Tyler Rudy suffered season-ending injuries.
"It's typical for me to be doing this two weeks before the season starts," Lilley said to reassure any fans that are worried about the lack of player signings in late March. To underline that he knows what he's doing in terms of player identification and roster construction, Lilley concluded by saying, "If we had been set at this point last season, we wouldn't have gotten Grant [van de Casteele] or Julian Ringhof or Kenardo [Forbes]."
If signing future All-League First Team players or the team's Offensive Player of the Year are the fruits of patience during preseason, I think Rochester Rhinos fans can put faith in the process.