After a rough patch of recent results, the Rhinos took four points from the past two games ahead of Wednesday's match after earning just five from the previous six games. Cincinnati had not lost since April 16, 2016 before traveling to Rochester on an 11-game unbeaten run.
The Rhinos ran out the same 5-3-2 formation they've used for several matches and only swapped Mike Garzi in for Brandon Beresford in midfield. Despite a busy couple weeks in which Garzi scored the game winner against Pittsburgh and got married over the weekend, the third-year midfielder stood out with a solid shift on Wednesday.
Through the first half, Rochester generally kept wing backs Ryan James and Marcos Ugarte in line with the three center backs to provide defensive cover. While this might have been conservative, the discerning approach allowed the wide players to save energy for more effective plays. This was precisely what happened in the buildup to Rochester's first goal.
From midfield Kenardo Forbes, who has been playing deeper in recent games than usual, played a pass on the ground into the channel for Ugarte. The second-year Rhino raced onto the ball and was able to keep the ball in bounds before firing a low ball across the face of goal. Steevan dos Santos met the initial cross but Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt was able to block the close-range shot with his knee.
The rebound fell to Garzi who had the wherewithal to calmly find an opening before rifling his shot into the back of the net to give Rochester the lead in the 34th minute. The goal was Garzi's second in two games after not scoring in his first two seasons with the club.
After the halftime break, Cincinnati attacked with purpose. The visitors sent full backs forward to provide service down the wings and FCC's midfield consistently found Sean Okoli. The former Revolution forward grabbed attention earlier this season with an acrobatic scissor-kick goal against Charlotte Independence. Okoli was the clear dangerman but the extra defender for Rochester closed him down when he found a pocket of space and forced him to rush his efforts on goal.
To their credit, the Rhinos attempted to exploit Cincinnati's attacking posture in the second half. Christian Volesky and dos Santos were both positioned high and looked to catch their opponent on the counter. Two two forwards showed promise in their link-up play but neither player combined a ruthless intent to attack with the proper technical execution. An exciting 2v2 chance that included Volesky taking beat Paul Nicholson and a second Cincinnati defender ended after he tried to take on a third inside the area.
While tied for the team's goal-scoring lead with 5 goals, rookie defender Joe Farrell can also play a decent pass upfield. From the right center back position, Farrell lifted a ball into the channel over the head of Cincinnati defender Harrison Delbridge. Dos Santos did well to get behind Delbridge and drew a foul from the former Sacramento Republic player inside the area for the penalty.
As Delbridge was booked, dos Santos came to the sideline to get turf pellets removed from his eye. With the designated goalscorer receiving momentary treatment, Sofiane Tergou temporarily stepped up to the spot. Once his eyes were set, however, dos Santos calmly dispatched his penalty past Hildebrandt who had dove to the opposite corner. Rochester's second goal in the 65th minute was the third of the season and second goal from the spot for dos Santos.
Ten minutes later referee Edvin Jurisevic awarded Cincinnati a penalty and Okoli converted to set up a tense final 15 minutes of the game. As the visitors looked to pack players into the box, Corben Bone launched a ball forward from half field. Rochester goalkeeper Tomas Gomez rushed off his line at the same time as Andrew Wiedeman cut inside from Cincinnati's right wing and center back Wal Fall was tracking the flight of the ball over his shoulder.
Gomez described the play to me after the game.
"I made the decision to go and I called "KEEP" and I thought I had the right path to the ball." The first-year Rochester goalkeeper said that his teammate Fall had inadvertently taken the ball out of his reach."
"We're taught to go for things like that," Gomez said, "But he nicked it which then threw me off. I tried to pull out so I wouldn't hit him [Wiedeman] and he kinda ran into me too."
In the final minutes of regulation, Okoli got free at the near post but Gomez did tremendously well to move his body and stay large to block the shot without coughing up a rebound. Gomez discussed his mental preparation that allowed him to come up big for his team in a pressure situation.
"Rochester, we're known for great defense and the keepers don't really have to do a lot of work," Gomez said. "Bob puts a lot of faith into me and Adam [Grinwis] so that we have to be ready at all times. Some games we're going to see the ball maybe twice and if we can make those saves, it keeps our chance to win. That's how we prepare every week, for plays like that in games like this."
Even though FC Cincinnati threw its goalkeeper into the mix on a corner kick, the equalizer never came and Rochester held on for an important 2-1 win over the high-spending first-year club.
After the game dos Santos described the play that earned Rochester's penalty. "I got in front of the guy [Delbridge] and I know he was coming behind me, I just put my body in front of him and he just pushed me on my back."
I asked dos Santos if he's frustrated to only have three goals halfway through the season. "For me, first thing is the team. Of course I want to score but if I don't score - like the game here against Pittsburgh I didn't score but I passed the ball to Garzi - for me, if I don't score but someone else scores, I'm happy."
I asked Garzi what gave him the confidence and the patience to pick his spot on the goal. "I think scoring against Pittsburgh gave me a little bit of confidence. It's almost like you're not rushing yourself anymore. Like they say, once one goes in, they start pouring in."
"It's one of those things where I had been in a similar position before. I had the ball, I looked around, and I knew I had some time. I composed myself a little bit and finished."
I jokingly asked if the composure on the goal was a sign of his maturity just days after getting married. "You could say that," Garzi laughed. "I've always been able to score goals, though. I think my first two years I was more of a defensive center mid. This year Coach Lilley's looking to push me forward a little bit more and when you get forward more you score goals, obviously."
Dos Santos remarked on what this result means given some of the tough recent opponents. "It's a good team but these past couple games we've been playing against some pretty good teams like Red Bulls the first team. We've played a few difficult teams and Cincinnati is one of the three teams on top, for us to get the three points here is awesome."
Gomez agreed that Wednesday night was a big result for the team, especially after settling for a frustrating draw at New York Red Bulls II on the weekend. "It's a big boost for us because last week we felt like we kinda got robbed off the offsides goal, which then we would have taken three points at Red Bull, and they haven't given up many goals.
"We outplayed them, they didn't have many chances on us. And then here I thought we put in a good team performance. And that's a really good Cincinnati team, there's some big name players," Gomez said. "To come back at home, to cut their momentum of 11 games and to win here, it's big for us. Now we're going into some lower half of the table opponents so for us that means we have to be focused so we can get a bunch of points to catch up with the top dogs at the top of the table."
Rochester is 7-4-4 on the season but now 2-0-1 in its last three games and looks to continue that positive momentum on Sunday against Orlando City B.