On Friday night, the Rochester Rhinos will have a lot of things swirling through their heads as they walk out against Orlando. Rochester has a 5 point lead on Charleston, but the Battery have played two fewer games. That means that if the Rhinos win they will make it nearly impossible for Charleston to catch up. A win would also be revenge for the 4-0 massacre the Rhinos suffered last month in Orlando. If the defense and Kristian Nicht can manage a shutout, it would rank Nicht in third place outright for most clean sheets in a single season for the Rhinos. Head coach Jesse Myers will be doing what he can to keep his players’ heads clear and focused on the task at hand; performing as well as they have all season.
Looking at the schedule at the beginning of the season, I noticed that the team played its last five games at home and eight of its last ten. This gave the Rhinos an opportunity to finish the season as strongly as they opened it (6-0-0). The team is currently riding a four game win streak at home, and since a mid-season slump they have rallied for 17 points from a possible 27 for a record of 5-2-2. Jesse Myers knows as well as anyone in the league that teams need to be enjoying positive form heading into the postseason.
Speaking of postseason, the Rhinos playoff picture depends on whether or not they can end the regular season in second place. A second place finish would earn Rochester a first round playoff bye and the Rhinos’ main rival for that spot are the Charleston Battery. Wilmington Hammerheads and Harrisburg City Islanders are both sitting on 30 points after 20 games and could factor as a threat for second place if they win out their remaining matches. Charleston has two games against Wilmington and one against a surging Harrisburg before traveling up to Rochester Saturday the 11th.
If the Rhinos can manage 5 points from their remaining schedule (at home against Orlando, Charleston and then Pittsburgh), they’ll be a safe bet for second place. The 2012 USL-Pro playoffs start the weekend after the final round of regular season matches, August 24 through 26. The two best teams from the regular season will earn a first round bye and will have an extra week of rest and training. Semifinal match-ups, featuring Orlando and the second placed team, are scheduled for the following weekend, August 31 through September 2. The 2012 USL-Pro Championship will be played during the weekend of September 7-9.
A second place finish would not only give the Rhinos an extra week of rest ahead of their semifinal playoff game, they would also earn home-field advantage for that game. If something odd happens and Orlando loses in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then Rhinos will have also secured home-field for the Championship game (of course, given that they advance to the final).
Nearly three weeks ago, Rochester traveled down to Orlando to face the City Lions without J.C. Banks. Talking to him the Pittsburgh game, Banks told me that the team was itching to get one back over Orlando and that he will do all he can to make that happen. When the team missed their best offensive threat to his brother’s wedding, the other players looked lost on the field. The team crumbled after 9 minutes and capitulated the match after only a quarter of an hour. Going in to that game, the Rhinos had played on the road two nights before. This time around Orlando is in that boat; they played a tough game at Harrisburg on Wednesday just two days before having to face the Rhinos at Sahlen’s Stadium.
Against Los Angeles, Kristian Nicht earned his 10th shutout of the season. He is currently sitting in a four-way tie for third place in the Rhinos’ record book. While he will be unable to catch Pat Onstad’s 1998 season (16 shutouts) or Scott Vallow’s 2006 season (14), Nicht could set himself apart in sole possession of third place for most clean sheets in a single season for the Rochester Rhinos during just his first year in American soccer. Nicht’s numbers have been buoyed by a record-breaking six shutouts to start the season.
Nicht’s clean sheets, playoff scenarios, and simple revenge will all be buzzing around the thoughts of Rochester’s players. The Rhinos cannot allow themselves to lose focus in the face of these distractions. Even if they don’t secure a victory Friday night, the Rhinos need to perform well in front of their fans at Sahlen’s Stadium. Irrespective of shutouts, potential byes, or grudges, the fans in Rochester deserve a show from their team.