Regular Season Finale

Tonight I attended the last game of the regular season for the Rochester Rhinos of USL-PRO.  Despite what could best be described as “inclement weather,” the Rhinos took the field at Sahlen’s Stadium on Saturday night and absolutely dominated the run of play against a vastly inferior Pittsburgh Riverhounds team.  The scoreline of 1-0 does not do the Rhinos justice in a game they controlled from the outset.  More thoughts after the jump…

J.C. Banks is the most exciting player I’ve had the privilege to watch in action on a regular basis.  Sure, going to Red Bulls Arena to see Thierry Henry trot around or to watch Gareth Bale work his magic on the wing the other summer was nice, but there’s something about watching a player mature in front of you over the course of a season.  I was first made aware of this player from a list of “MLS Draft Prospects to Watch” last fall.  He has a YouTube compilation from his college days and went to Europe to train before coming back to the States.  I was surprised that no MLS teams saw the potential in the attacking player who can play anywhere in the midfield or up top.  Fortunately for me, he wound up signing a contract for my Rochester Rhinos and has not disappointed this season.

The match tonight was one in which the Rhinos passed circles around their opposition almost from the first minute.  To the frustration of a few daft but vocal supporters, the Rhinos often opted the simple pass backwards to preserve possession than to attempt a hopeful lob or through ball.  Pittsburgh walked into Sahlen’s Stadium knowing they were the lesser team, and as such pulled a page out of Mick McCarthy’s book.  Like Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Riverhounds sat back, absorbed their opposition’s pressure and, whenever possible, left a foot in or jumped up for headers with their elbows leading.  From the early minutes of the game, it was clear that the Rhinos were going to see most of the ball and they had already built up sustained offensive pressure.  Despite this, they struggled to play the final ball in or find an opening for the shot.  This pattern of controlling play and sending players forward to jockey around the 18 continued for most of the game.

J.C. Banks unlocked the Pittsburgh defense in the 63rd minute before laying off the ball to a wide open Rich Costanzo who was running in by the PK marker.  Costanzo made no mistake with his low driven effort and tallied the only goal of the game.  While the Rhinos had a few chances in the first half, most were shots from range and none were very threatening.  Though in the first half, playing on the left wing, Banks decided to take on his defender and try to beat him to the line before sending in a driven cross.  These are quite hard for defenders to deal with as they are hit with pace and don’t curl much.

This was probably the only way the Rhinos were going to find the back of the net in a match where Pittsburgh proverbially “parked the bus” in front of the 18 yard box.  Whenever the Rhinos had the ball out on one of the wings, the far side defender would tuck in with the two central defenders for Pittsburgh and the wide midfield player would tuck into that hole.  In addition, the holding midfielder would drop back and cover in front of the would-be back three while the one outside back pressured the ball.  That many bodies packed in made the Rhinos’ quick passes impossible in the final third.  What Banks was able to realize is that the best opportunity to spread this sardine defense was to isolate one defender and take him on.  I love a player with the confidence and ability to take on his defender, and that’s just what J.C. did.  Still on the left wing in the second half, Banks drew the right back to him and beat him to the endline before turning the cross back towards Costanzo.  The quickness of Banks caught the defense off guard and they didn’t see the run of Costanzo from left back up into the box.

The goal was truly a thing of beauty as Banks set it up for Costanzo on a silver platter.  That’s how I like to score goals on FIFA 11, with a winger beating his defender and finding the run of the late arriving man completely unmarked who could hardly miss the net.  In the second half the Rhinos also stopped relying on traditional looping crosses and began utilizing more direct balls in from the wings.  For those who play FIFA, that’s the cross where you hold on L1 or left bumper when you play the ball in.  It’s the kind of cross Gareth Bale does in his sleep.  The Pittsburgh defense clearly had no idea how to deal with those balls as the Rhinos looked more and more threatening.

Rochester’s Rhinos have always played at attractive style of soccer at home, even though they haven’t always been able to find the back of the net.  The most prominent of a short list of negatives on the season has been Tony Donatelli.  Rhinos picked him up after he was released by Montreal in the offseason.  I don’t think he’s a terrible player, per se, but he is garbage at his position.  When the squad is healthy and not bogged down by ridiculous scheduling (like 5 games in 15 days), Donatelli usually slots in to the right wing position.  He could not be farther from his teammate on the other side, J.C. Banks, in terms of skill set or work ethic or anything else.  Donatelli plays in the wide midfield but never stays wide, he’s always opting to come inside leaving the wide channel completely empty.  He does not have pace so that when his teammates, usually the conductor from deep Alfonso Motagalvan, plays a ball out wide he can never beat his defender to it or even keep it in play.  He does not have the quick feet or arsenal of tricks to take on a defender, nor can he cross a decent ball.  When he coughs up possession, he shows no great urgency to win it back and rarely provides support to his right back (who tonight was Quavas Kirk).

This may seem like I want to run this guy out of town or kill his firstborn or something not so biblical.  In reality Donatelli can be an asset to the team, not a liability when he’s on the field.  He is just not in any way shape or form a wide midfielder or winger.  Think of anything you want your winger to do, and then wonder why head coach Bob Lilley plays a player out of position there.  The one thing Donatelli can do right, is cut in and rail a shot on goal.  However, he would have to beat his defender in order to do so, and that’s not happening any time soon.  Donatelli did show his lethal shot late in the first half and in the second half, but when he did he was stationed centrally at the top of the 18 yard box.  This would be the perfect place for him to play.  The Rhinos lined up in a 4-4-2 tonight but Tyler Rosenlund often dropped back as a second striker (like Rafael van der Vaart) and even into the midfield.  As the game went on, the Rhinos looked like a 4-5-1, and would have done well to swap Rosenlund out wide (where he has played with great effectiveness in previous years) and allow Donatelli to be lazy and disinterested until the ball comes to him in a dangerous area where he can rocket a shot on frame.

2011 USL PRO regular season action is over for the Rhinos, but the playoffs are now only days away.  Divisional semifinals kick off on Friday as the Rhinos (first seed) take on the very same Pittsburgh Riverhounds (fourth seed) at Sahlen’s Stadium a 7:30.  Hopefully with better weather, the Rhinos can make more intelligent decisions in the final third and execute better in the opposition’s box.  Tickets are $10 and the Rhinos should put on a show like they did for the 7459 supporters who braved the rain to attend Saturday night’s victory.

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