Opposing coaches often remark that is it near impossible to break down Bob Lilley's defense when the team is organized. Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke may have had some interesting things to say after Sunday afternoon's game but none of it was about Rochester's staunch defending.
Despite lining up with five defenders again, with Vasilis Apostolopoulos replacing Sean Totsch in the starting squad, the Rhinos looked confused from the first whistle. Defenders scrambled to cover the speedy forwards from Bethlehem and there was no clear plan to transition from defense to attack. Even though the team has been playing the same general formation, though with minor tweaks on individual roles, for over a month, the system notably broke down inside twenty minutes.
Before finding the breakthrough, Bethlehem Steel FC showed promise in their attack while Rochester looked lifeless. In the 10th minute, winger Cole Missimo dribbled past at least four Rhinos, who barely reacted, before unleashing a shot wide of the goal. Despite getting outplayed all over the field, Rochester did not got the wake-up call.
After the Rhinos had broken up an incipient attack, right wingback Ryan James looked to move the play forward. From the right flank, James played a pass central past Mike Garzi, out of the reach of Wal Fall, and generally in the direction of Kenardo Forbes. The ball did not find any of those three teammates, however, and Bethlehem's Derrick Jones bounced on the turnover to jumpstart a quick break.
As Jones drove forward, Rochester midfielders offered only a fleeting interest in closing him down while the defense never stepped up to challenge the forward. To his credit, Forbes looked to block off a potential pass route toward another Bethlehem attacker but Fall was particularly lackadaisical in his recovery run. Jones looked for a shooting lane near the top of the 18-yard box and faked a shot twice moving the ball onto his right foot, toying with veteran center back Apostolopoulos.
The 19-year old forward from Ghana fired a shot across the face of goal that beat Rochester goalkeeper Adam Grinwis, who may have been partially screened by his own defenders and saw the shot late. Jones's strike rather trickled over the line though he could not have hit it any more accurately as it nestled into the side netting.
This play marked a break down of throughout the team but raises questions about James and center back Wal Fall. Earlier in the season James gifted a goal to FC Montreal with an errant back pass and could not have been happy to add to that ignominious tally on Sunday.
While failing to hold together at the back, Rochester offered nothing going forward in the first half. The team didn't manage a shot until the first minute of stoppage time when Christian Volesky fired wide of goal.
Whatever coach Lilley told the Rhinos at halftime, whether it was a case of the "hairdryer treatment" or words of gentle encouragement, it was effective. Rochester had five shots in the second half, though Forbes's goal was the only one on target.
Five minutes into the second half, Fall headed in dangerous cross but the referee called the goal back for offside. After a free kick was partially cleared, Sofiane Tergou whipped service in from the left towards a mess of Rochester players. While some players were very clearly offside, others attempted to time their runs to beat the line. Of the four players that appeared to be offside, Fall probably had the best argument but the assistant referee raised his flag and the goal was disallowed.
Garzi played dos Santos into the right channel and the powerful forward out-muscled Bethlehem left back Taylor Washington to maintain possession. Dos Santos looked to hit low service towards Volesky and Tergou but the ball ricocheted off of Bethlehem's Nick Bibb and fell in front of the six-yard box. Following up on the play, Forbes connected sweetly with the bouncing ball from nine yards out and buried the equalizer in 57th minute.
For the final half four, and significant stoppage time, the Rhinos pressed the issue in search of the go-ahead goal. The home side asked their own questions with the introduction of Cory Burke off the bench but much of the late stages of the game belonged to Rochester.
That second goal never came for the Rhinos and the match finished at 1-1. The draw extends Rochester's unbeaten run to seven games though the team only has three wins in that span, all at home. Despite only earning a point from the game, the staff might be pleased with the turn around in performance from the terrible first half to the promising second half.
In the dying minutes of the game, captain Mike Garzi stayed on the ground holding his left leg. After some attention from the team's medical trainer, focusing on his knee, Garzi was helped off the field. An injury to Garzi would compound roster issues for Bob Lilley's side.
After the game, Bethlehem coach revealed that he took issue with the officiating of the match. On the match stream, Burke told the sideline reporter Gwen Begley, "I think there were a lot of fouls that we didn't get." Bethlehem Steel FC published postgame quotes saying: "Yeah, we told the referees before the game and that we expected it and they actually tilted it the other way after that conversation." He claimed that his players got "no protection" from the referees and that "we just got kicked all over the place."
Welcome to the professional game, Burke.
The Rhinos (now 8-4-7) next play on Friday, July 29 at the Harrisburg City Islanders.