An early goal from Christian Volesky appeared to allay any fears of a slow start to the 2016 USL season for defending champions Rochester Rhinos. Rochester Head Coach Bob Lilley did not have a full complement of players at his disposal against Pittsburgh due to paperwork and suspensions, which makes the road victory even sweeter for the Rhinos.
After an uneventful opening seven minutes, Marcos Ugarte led the Rhinos forward on a transition. From a central position, Ugarte curled a low ball around Pittsburgh's Sergio Campbell and into the path of Volesky. As Hunter Gilstrap came off his line, Volesky got on the end of the ball and, always the cheeky finisher, the second-year Rhino chipped the keeper from distance. The audacious and creative goal from Volesky gave the visitors a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute.
Bob Lilley appreciated both the goal itself and the play to set it up. "It was a great finish, it really was. And it was a good play by Marcos to feed him. It was a well-timed run and a good ball played in behind and then a kind of looped finish over the top of the goalie that dipped under the bar."
The Riverhounds lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation but Rochester's defense were successful at isolating Zak Boggs, Pittsburgh's lone forward. Rochester's midfield had to be mindful to close down Kevin Kerr, one of the USL's top goal creators in recent seasons, and largely did so in the first half.
The pelting rain certainly left its mark on proceedings as players on both teams went in with sloppy challenges. Rochester players in particular showed heavy feet as they were slow to recover into position. Waterlogged feet from the visitors perhaps led to the Riverhounds' best chance of the first half.
Pittsburgh's right back Drew Russell overlapped down the wing and sent swift service into the Rochester penalty area in the 38th minute. No defenders picked up Kevin Kerr's deep run at the far post but his volleyed attempted sailed off-target. Russell was the most active playmaker for the home team throughout the game.
Halftime substitute Corey Hertzog nearly made an immediate impact when he put a 46th minute shot just over the bar with his first touch. Rochester's tired legs and the quick feet of Pittsburgh's substitutes led to a series of poor tackles just after the hour mark. Apostolopoulos earned the first booking of the game for a punishing challenge to Hertzog's midriff while Ugarte also saw yellow for holding back an opponent in midfield shortly after.
After the bookings, the tide turned away from the hosts and the game opened up at both ends. Volesky had a great chance to double Rochester's advantage with 20 minutes left. The second-year forward was played through on goal but chose the wrong shot as the ball flew miles off-frame from about 18 yards out.
The final minutes of the game were disjointed as any semblance of tactics flew out the window. Pittsburgh had a dangerous push forward in the last minute of regulation but Apostolopoulos cleared out the aerial service into the Rochester penalty area.
Rochester held on to its one-goal lead until the final whistle and looked just as likely to seal the win as Pittsburgh did to equalize for the last half-hour. "In the first 15 minutes of the second half, I thought they got on us really good and had a couple great chances to level the game," Bob Lilley said after the game. "We weathered the storm, though, and for the the last 30 minutes I was really happy with how we closed out the game." In typical Lilley fashion, the Rhinos grabbed a result on the road with a tight scoreline.
The standout performer for Rochester, perhaps also in typical Rhinos fashion, was goalkeeper Adam Grinwis. Grinwis was the backup to 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller, but against Pittsburgh looked like he may earn that title in 2016. When the Riverhounds came out of halftime energized by the introduction of Hertzog, Grinwis rose to the task and stopped every chance the home team generated.
"Adam Grinwis had a couple of huge saves. I thought he was really solid tonight," Bob Lilley told me after the game. "Obviously Hertzog is a talented player to be coming off the bench, but I thought that we reacted well; we had to figure it out. I think our defenders did a good job of hanging in there and Adam made a few big saves when he had to."
Coach Lilley also had high praise for New England Revolution loanee Donnie Smith. "Donnie was fantastic. He's been with us before so I was able to just talk to him today at lunch to give him some specific instructions, go over restarts, all of his responsibilities. You could tell he's an experienced guy even though he hasn't played a ton of minutes in New England. You can tell he handled the occasion well. I thought he was real good, solid all game."
Rochester next plays at the Richmond Kickers on Saturday, April 9 at 5:00PM.