It's been a bit of a roller coaster for the Rhinos in recent weeks. After 8 draws in 13 games, the Rhinos got a gutsy win over Charleston Battery on the road before squandering a lead at home against a weakened New York Red Bulls II last weekend. Heading into Saturday night's game at Charlotte Independence, the Rhinos knew they had to win their remaining two games to have a shot at hosting a playoff game this season.
The team battled for 90 minutes to that end and walked out of Ramblewood Soccer Complex with three points and a shutout.
Bob Lilley's match selection against the Independence caught some attention as recently un-retired assistant coach Georgios "George" Kyriazis started in the center of a 5-defender backline. 36-year old Kyriazis came off the bench the previous week to try to see out the result against New York while Wal Fall was suspended, Sean Totsch was injured, and Dominic Samuel played at right back. This week Kyriazis started while Fall returned to midfield and Samuel moved to the bench.
In the 41st minute Kenardo Forbes took a corner kick from Rochester's right side. The service bounced inside the area before centerback Joe Farrell tried to control the ball. As he stepped toward the ball, Farrell was fouled by Charlotte midfielder Lewis Hilton. The referee, though he made a series of head-scratching decisions throughout the match, did not hesitate to point to the spot.
Steevan Humberto Fortes dos Santos stepped up to take the penalty against Charlotte's John Berner. Berner actually dove to the correct side, but Rochester's Cabo Verdean forward placed his shot high into the corner and well out of the goalkeeper's reach.
The sure-footed penalty goal in the 42nd minute not only gave Rochester the lead heading into the halftime break, but also alleviated any lingering concerns about spot-kick duty. In the team's most recent loss at home against Richmond, Christian Volesky pulled rank over a visibly perturbed dos Santos only to see his flubbed effort saved by Matt Turner.
Four minutes into the second half it appeared that Forbes may have handled the ball inside Rochester's area as Hilton collected a cross. The referee was in a central position and was not able to see if the ball struck Forbes's right hand as he pressured Hilton but Rochester cleared the chance and play continued.
The Rhinos conceded much of the game's possession to Charlotte for large portions of the middle 15 minutes of the second half. The Independence set up camp in Rochester's half and the visitors played with 10 and sometimes all 11 players behind the ball. Despite the apparent pressure, the hosts were unable to fashion chances close to Rochester's goal.
In the 77th minute, Lilley began making substitutions to ensure the narrow victory away from home. Defender Dominic Samuel and ball-winning midfielder Mike Garzi entered the game for Kyriazis and forward Volesky. A few minutes later Brandon Beresford replaced Bradley Kamdem and the Guyana international worked for the final ten minutes of the game closing down Charlotte players on the left side of midfield.
Even though Charlotte did not create many clear-cut efforts, Gomez came up big by claiming corner kicks and crosses but also by reacting well to get his body behind any headers the home side directed on frame. The first-year Rhino earned his sixth clean sheet of the 2016 USL season with a number of saves and safe hands throughout the game.
Tired from pressuring the opposition, dos Santos made way for Jamaican forward Asani Samuels in the 90th minute while Bakayoko Gaossou replaced Forbes in stoppage time. The series of defensive substitutes (and Samuels as an outlet with fresh legs) provided the intended purpose as the Rhinos held onto their late first half lead to take all three points from Charlotte. The Independence represented a mental challenge for Rochester as the team handed the eventual champions their only loss of the 2015 season. In fact, prior to Saturday night's encounter the Rhinos had not yet beaten Charlotte since the Independence joined the USL in 2015.
Rochester has now not lost since August 3, going 4-0-4 in that time and pressing for the fourth spot in the USL Eastern Conference. Two of those wins came on the road against playoff-bound teams so even if the Rhinos finish outside of the top four and travel in the postseason, Rochester fans should have reason to be confident.